Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War.
Now add Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods to the sadly short list of great filmmakers who have made great films about the Vietnam War.
Arguably the director/co-writer’s best-looking work to date — and possibly the most impressive use of Netflix money thus far — Lee’s second war film is a vast improvement over the plodding, overlong World War II dud Miracle at St. Anna (2008), as well as the last time he used “Da” in a film’s title — the failed low-budget Ganja & Hess remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014).
Tapping into Lee’s fascination with history, Da 5 Bloods begins by tossing viewers right into the period fire via a crash course in American unrest in the years leading up to and immediately following the Vietnam War, told through powerful, occasionally unsettling archival clips, complete with straightforward informative text in the frames’ lower corners.
The lesson complete, a dissolve stylistically brings us to modern day Ho Chi Minh City, where titular Vietnam vets Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Broadway vet Norm Lewis) reunite to retrieve the locker of gold they buried during the war — under the Pentagon-approved guise of bringing home the remains of their fallen squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman).
Rounded out, to their surprise, by the last-minute addition of Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco), the old friends begin their mission, and as with Lee’s best ensemble-driven films, the group features a combustible combination of disparate backgrounds that are bound to explode in one way or another.
At appropriate intervals throughout their journey, Lee flashes back to the Bloods’ discovery of the treasure and their subsequent ambush by the Vietcong, revealing a knack for action filmmaking that he’s rarely showcased in his 30-plus year filmography.
The sequences also feature an appealing playfulness with aspect ratios and the intriguing decision to have the surviving Bloods depicted as their older, present-day selves in the flashbacks, conveying their reflective nature returning to a place of great trauma and how they’ve had difficulty letting go of that painful experience.
Back in modern day, the foreshadowing of an invisible threat makes the Bloods’ search for the gold extremely tense and pays off in brutal fashion, as does Paul’s aversion to being approached by Vietnamese strangers. And more than most Lee films, Da 5 Bloods is peppered with black history as the director employs intelligent uses of archival footage and images to raise the heroic efforts of famous and lesser known figures.
A soundtrack populated with Marvin Gaye classics, an aptly heroic Terence Blanchard score, other choice period hits and at least one callback to another iconic moment in Vietnam War cinema history further amplify Lee’s command of the material and pairs well with gorgeous scenery lensed by veteran cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who’s remarkably in tune with Lee’s vision in their first collaboration.
Clocking in at over 2 1/2 hours, Da 5 Bloods is somewhat bloated and arguably could stand to shed a few twists and turns, mainly the inclusion of three members of an international mine-defusing nonprofit, but as is, it’s still wildly captivating, despite and somewhat because of its excess.
In particular, Lee’s textbook rambling dialogue style, equal parts frustrating and exhilarating, that was missing from the more focused BlacKkKlansman (2018) is back and most noticeably benefits Lindo, affording his haunted, Trump-supporting Paul some of the film’s most moving moments.
The film’s remarkable attention to detail culminates in an unexpected number of emotional punches during the action-packed finale and a coda, with impeccable timing given the recent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even though Lee has remained cutting-edge throughout his career, especially when it comes to race relations, his latest work’s topicality is a wonder to behold and is by far the year’s best film to date.
Now available to stream via Netflix