Spike Lee has never been an unambitious filmmaker. However, it’s hard to think of a movie in his catalog that’s as big and as bold as his new one, Da 5 Bloods. It somehow manages to be many movies at once, including a meta-movie about war movies. But we’ll talk about that and more in our movie review of Da 5 Bloods.
A Plot Summary, If That’s Possible
image via Netflix
Four men–four of the “Bloods” of the title–make their return to Vietnam. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) are all veterans of the war. They’re returning to retrieve the body of the fifth blood, their commander “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman). But that’s not the only reason they’ve come back. They’ve also come to locate a cache of gold they left. Joining them on this journey is Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), and many ghosts of the past. (Yes, Lee named most of the main characters after the original members of The Temptations. Spike, you scamp!)
But this being a Spike Lee joint, it’s not just the war ghosts they’ll have to confront, but the ghosts that haunt America. And although Lee or Netflix could have never predicted it, they could hardly have picked a more relevant time to release this movie. But that’s one of the points of the movie–it is always a relevant time.
This Movie Is a Wild Mix of Genres
image via Netflix
Both IMDB and Wikipedia list this movie as a war movie or a drama or both. It is both of those things, but those descriptors are too chaste, too simple. Because this movie is so much more than either of those. Clocking in at a healthy 2 and a half hours, Da 5 Bloods is an experiment with genre and form. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a pretty straight-forward film, maybe something like Last Flag Flying.
It has Lee’s typical stylistic flourishes, as it begins with a montage of clips of prominent black celebrities and activists, like Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis, talking about the war in Vietnam. But that montage is more than just a stylish quirk; it’s also a clue. Lee isn’t just talking about one war or one thing. He’s talking about the history of the United States as a war and how it’s all connected.
As such, the movie seems to shimmer and shift through genres. Quentin Tarantino has rightfully earned a reputation as a cinephile who imbues his own movies with references to other ones. Whether you think of it as homage, pastiche, or even theft, he loves to sprinkle in visual and other allusions to movies, including his own. But he’s not the only movie fan in town and Spike Lee’s movies have also often riffed on the movies that came before them.
However, they’ve probably never been as overt as they are in this movie, which finds Lee riffing on not only war movies, like Apocalypse Now, but adventure films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Even the ending, with its classic Spike Lee double dolly shot, is like a riff on his own movies. (Uh, not to mention two of the actors who played Klansmen in Blackkklansman, Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen, appearing as NGO workers.)
But as they go deeper into the jungle, the genre switches swiftly to horror. One of the classic tropes of horror is the idea of no escape. And although the war is over, as their guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyen) points out, no war ever really ends. (Just ask my nieces, who’ve never known a world without it.) In the jungle and even before it, it’s as if time stopped. The war never ended and they never came home.
Da 5 Bloods Movie Review
image via Netflix
After all, landmines still stud the ground, while metaphorical ones have lodged in the men’s minds. And none of them is as touched as Paul. Although he’s an imposing character, secure in his beliefs–his MAGA hat gets a lot of use–there’s a fragility at the heart of him that Lindo plays well. (Since so few movies are going to come out this year, maybe he will get the Oscar attention he deserves.)
Ultimately, he’s a tragic figure, the Colonel Kurtz of their expedition. But neither the war nor the world leaves anyone untouched. Although they were supposed to give the gold to Vietnamese forces, the men are taking it because they believe it to be theirs. It is a small reparation for the war and everything that came before and after.
One example: Otis, for instance, finds out that he left behind a daughter. She spent her childhood being called a “cockroach” because her father was black–but as her mother points out, Vietnamese people didn’t instinctively know the n-word. American GIs taught it to them. It’s an idea that hearkens back to a scene in Miracle at St. Anna, Lee’s other war film–the scene that stuck with me the most. A group of black soldiers stops in at a diner for “ice slops,” whatever that is. While a quartet of German POWs eats in the restaurant, the soldiers–all American–are told that they have to “go around back” to get service.
And it’s similar to the ending of Blackkklansman, wherein Lee ties the 70s-set movie with the events in Charlottesville. No war ever ends, and although the world has tried hard to make it seem not so, Black lives matter.
Da 5 Bloods Movie Review: The Bottom Line
Da 5 Bloods isn’t a perfect film–it’s a little long, slow to get started, and it can be chaotic. It also doesn’t dig deeply enough into some of its ideas. Still, it’s sure-footed and it’s Spike Lee at his freewheeling best. Even an okayish Spike Lee movie is still interesting–just ask me, who once watched Summer of Sam every day for a week–but thankfully, Da 5 Bloods is more than just interesting.
Have you watched Da 5 Bloods yet? What did you think of its chaotic energy? Let us know on the social media, which I check with the fervor of a new convert, or here in the comments.
featured image via Netflix
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.