Spike Lee’s excellent “Da 5 Bloods” opens with Muhammad Ali and closes with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., two legends who are inextricably tied to the Civil Rights movement and Black pride. Lee uses them to highlight another commonality: their strenuous opposition to the Vietnam War. For Ali, the objection cost him several productive years of his career and his heavyweight title; for Dr. King, this new focus was quite possibly the final straw that led to his assassination. The first words we hear are Ali’s famous explanation of why he refused to enlist. The last words we hear are from a speech King gave on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his murder, where he quotes poet Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”
Between these two bookends is a heist movie of sorts, albeit one with far more on its mind than its plot details would suggest. Lee is one of the few directors who takes to heart Godard’s comment that “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” There is critique here, especially of films like “The Green Berets,” “Rambo” and “Missing in Action,” with one character joking about how Hollywood went back to Vietnam to “try winning the war” on-screen. There’s also commentary on just how White these movies were, with people like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone achieving mythic glory while blithely erasing the fact that 32% of the soldiers in the jungle were Black. It’s this type of whitewashing of veterans that Lee chips at with his cast and his story, the same type that would allow an NFL quarterback to imply that his White grandfathers were more patriotic than the soldiers of color who fought in the war with them, yet came home to inferior circumstances.
Running in parallel with these criticisms are blatant homages to other films, and not just war movies like “Apocalypse Now,” which gets a visual name-check as the main characters do a pseudo-Soul Train line boogie to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” A big chunk of “Da 5 Bloods” pays tribute to John Huston’s masterful 1948 adaptation of B. Traven’s classic parable of greed, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Like that film, the plot involves a search for gold, though unlike Humphrey Bogart and John’s dad, Walter, the main characters here have a good idea where the treasure is. The loot has also already been turned into more palatable and recognizable gold bars.
As in films like “Inside Man” and “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee unabashedly quotes his influences—he knows that you know what he’s doing, and he milks that for as much mileage as he can. Steal from the best, as the adage goes, and “Treasure” is a vein worth mining. So, there’s a nod to Walter Huston’s joyous gold discovery dance and Vietnamese bandits dare to paraphrase that line about not needing any stinkin’ badges. The gold itself is just as big a MacGuffin, except here it’s also a deus ex machina of sorts, pulling out of the ether a note of hopeful uplift that ties the fictional story to a much-desired, reality-based outcome that’s almost too good to believe but wonderful to behold.
In lesser hands, the occasional messiness of the script by Lee, his fellow Oscar winning “BlacKkKlansman” scribe Kevin Wilmott, and Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo might result in a film weakened by its occasional predictability. But Lee has always been a master of using the cinematic tropes that have always worked as an okey-doke: the left hand lures you in with the familiar before the right hand blindsides you with the unexpected punching power of the intended point. Yes, the tapestry portrays a simple scene, yet upon closer inspection, one realizes that its threads have been woven with complexity. This director knows the power of captivating an audience so he can goad them into sticking around for his message.
So, on the surface, we have the story of four Vietnam vets who have returned to the country that bonded them in battle to claim a treasure they buried several decades ago. The men themselves initially seem to fit the usual types—there’s the joker, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the level-headed medic, Otis (Clarke Peters) and the one who achieved the most post-war success, Eddie (Norm Lewis). Rounding out the quartet is the forceful, hot-headed leader, Paul, played by Delroy Lindo in one of the best performances to come out of a Spike Lee joint. The fifth blood of the title is not Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who unexpectedly shows up to join his elders’ crew, but their fallen comrade and squad leader, Norman, whose body they have been authorized to exhume so as to not raise suspicions about their other intentions. They will be assisted, at least to the base of their jungle journey, by Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), a trustworthy guide who provides context from his side of what he calls “The American War.”
“He was like a religion to your father,” Otis tells his godson, David, who informs us that Paul’s PTSD has him calling out Norman’s name in his sleep. The Bloods gave their leader the nickname “Stormin’ Norman,” and he is spoken about in the reverent tones one reserves for folk heroes. In a perfect casting move, Stormin’ Norman is played by Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman. After playing real-life Black legends like James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson, not to mention the fictional king of Wakanda, Boseman doesn’t need to overplay his mythical status. A shot of him just shooting the shit with an Afro pick rising up from the back of his head carries enough unapologetic Blackness to power a nuclear reactor of revolution. It is he who educates the Bloods on the history of Black and brown people dying for a country that doesn’t love them back, starting with Crispus Attucks and ending with Milton Olive III, who dove on a grenade to save his platoon and was the first African-American awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Stormin’ Norman also puts the trunk of gold bars they discover in a downed CIA plane into context—he sees it as much deserved reparations, a repurposing of funds that were originally slated for Vietnamese people who provided information to the U.S.
That gold can’t leave Vietnam in its current condition, so outside forces are necessary to assist. Otis reconnects with Tien (Le Y Lan), a former sex worker with whom he had a relationship during his tours of duty. Tien is now a major financial broker who puts him in touch with a shady French businessman named Desroche (Jean Reno). “He’s expensive,” she tells Otis before naming his price of 20% of the take. Into this expected heist movie scene, Lee introduces the topic of children who have been fathered by American G.I.’s during wars, with Peters and Lan playing the sequence in beautiful understatement before returning us back to the main story. Several times, Lee will engage in these sorts of tangents, either with plot or real-life images and footage edited into the film. The latter device is worked seamlessly into the narrative, sometimes to shocking and heartrending effect, and it often draws parallels, as Ali’s speech does in the first scene, between the poor Vietnamese citizens and the poor Blacks sent to fight them.
Lee also works in ties between the French, who tried their hand at Vietnam, and the Americans, who, to quote Otis, “tried to feed us that anti-Commie Kool-Aid.” “Uncle Sam did no better in Vietnam than the French did,” Desroche tells Paul after the latter goes off on him regarding French weakness. (Oddly enough, Lee’s penchant for wonderfully crazy monikers for his characters is relegated to Reno’s; French speakers will benefit from a great visual play on “Desroche” later in the film.) Paul would rather do business with anyone else, but this is the hand they’re dealt, so the Bloods choose to play it. Soon, they will also encounter other French people, including Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry) an heiress turned landmine expert whom David becomes sweet on, and her colleagues Simon (Paul Walter Hauser) and Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen), all of whom will become involved once the violent, action movie elements of the film come into play.
Paul hates the French, the Vietnamese, hell, everybody practically. He’s anti-immigrant and, in what is no doubt a troll on the director’s part, Paul voted for the man an on-screen caption refers to as “President Fake Bone Spurs.” Paul even says “there were atrocities on both sides!” As far as trolling goes, however, Lee is playing the long game here. Paul may be MAGA, and the red hat he wears in the jungle is an image ripe with shade (the hat went to Vietnam, its symbolic representation stayed home), but he is also the most complex character in “Da 5 Bloods,” a mix of rage, anger, and hurt exacerbated by the war and the guilt it seared into his soul. Paul was with Stormin’ Norman when he died, and it’s easy to figure out what happened long before the truth is revealed. But again, that’s the well-worn path Lee travels to get to the heretofore underrepresented onscreen depiction of Black postwar trauma and its effects on friends and family alike.
These effects are realized in a fantastic monologue delivered mostly in close-up by Lindo. Again, Lee takes a cue from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” but while Huston had Bogie wandering the mountains muttering to himself while in the thrall of paranoia driven by greed, Lee has Paul rant at the United States government while looking at the viewer. Lindo’s scene isn’t a descent into madness; it’s an ascent towards self-realization filtered through angry howls of defiance. This arc reaches its apex in a moment of cathartic exorcism that gives way to a moment of darkly comic punishment courtesy of a well-placed snare trap. “God, you a trickster!” yells Paul, evoking the fabled character of African myth.
“Da 5 Bloods” jumps back and forth, though not too many times, between the Bloods’ tours of duty and the present day. In those flashbacks, all four older actors play themselves without benefit of the de-aging CGI that plagued “The Irishman.” At first, it’s rather jarring, but I bought into the visual of these characters stepping through the looking glass armed with the knowledge their younger incarnations did not have. They’ve come back to a place that, as Vinh points out, they’ve figuratively never left. It haunts them forever. “I see ghosts,” Paul says at one agonized point, and though the ghost he sees is Norman, the real specter in the room is the war itself. You have to think long and hard to come up with a movie that focuses so intently on the aftermath of war on Black soldiers (“Mudbound” and “Dead Presidents” come to mind, but they also have other stories to tell.)
In addition to the verbal commentary about present events vs. past ones, Lee also employs some sly visual representations of his points. David wears a Morehouse shirt throughout his jungle trek and it’s more than just a shout-out to the director’s alma mater. It’s a reminder that the college kids didn’t wind up in this location. “They put our poor Black asses out here on the front line,” says Melvin, “killing us like flies.” With the occasional jump to graphic documentary footage, we’re also reminded that the Vietnam War was beamed into the homes of millions of Americans via the nightly news, forcing them to see the atrocities in such an effective way that later wartime presidents forced a moratorium on images of war, as if out of sight meant out of mind.
As expected, Lee gets excellent performances out of his cast straight down the line and is unafraid to coax out moments of love and affection to undercut the expected machismo of his Bloods. Whitlock presents yet another hilarious iteration of his persona, Lewis exudes a confidence that is clearly hiding a sadder truth, Majors is as revelatory as he was in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” and Peters is a very effective voice of reason. As the women in this outfit, Lan and Thierry acquit themselves nicely with a toughness tempered with warmth. But this superb, haunting contraption belongs to Delroy Lindo, whose complicated work here almost rivals Denzel Washington’s turn in “Malcolm X.” Lee always knows how to play the actor’s size and toughness alongside, and against, his vulnerability, and Lindo has never been afraid to plumb the depths of raw, naked emotion that would terrify actors worried about what constitutes a manly image.
There is plenty of action, both in wartime and during the present day, which keeps the movie moving through its 157-minute runtime. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel handles it well, shooting some extraordinarily gorgeous and horrific images while fiddling with the aspect ratio in ways I found too clever to be annoyed with—one change occurs during an old-fashioned wipe, while another manifests itself with a dramatic opening of the screen. If Sigel is the MVP of the imagery, Terence Blanchard and Marvin Gaye rule the soundtrack. Blanchard’s score is bombastic, terrifying and militaristic one minute, achingly beautiful the next. And Lee’s use of Gaye’s songs, primarily from the What’s Going On album, is aces, especially in a chilling a capella rendering of the title song and a use of “God Is Love” that will stay with you long after the film is over.
“Da 5 Bloods” also has its own Mister Senor Daddy Love, a disc jockey Greek chorus represented here by Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo). It is she who tells the Bloods about the death of Dr. King, and it is she who taunts them with the question of why they’re fighting for a country that will treat them like they’re second class citizens when they return. In a way, it begs the question of what is the true measurement of patriotism and why it is far too often wrapped up in jingoism rather than sacrifice. Lee has crafted an exciting, violent film that can be enjoyed as strictly that, but what elevates it to greatness is what it says and what it shows about the perception of Blackness, whether in heroic situations or human ones. It’s no mistake that “Da 5 Bloods” ends with Langston Hughes’ words:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”