Film Review: Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee’s Vietnam War opus and one of his very best

Fresh off the acclaim of his last film Blackkklansman and the series reboot She’s Gotta Have It, writer/director Spike Lee is back with his most ambitious film yet; the 2020 wartime drama Da 5 Bloods. Taking his prescient, provocative style and conveying it on a larger scale, it looks to be an absolute winner.

A group of best friends/Vietnam war veterans return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen comrade Norman (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman) and return them to American soil. But on the side, the four are also looking for treasure (a case of CIA gold bars) they found during the war but have buried in order to reclaim it later.

For a film that has a runtime of 153 minutes, the synopsis is surprisingly brief. Thankfully, the story is rich in detail as Lee justifies the runtime with timely themes (oppression, faults in militaristic actions, racism), striking details and three-dimensional characterizations (all backed up by great performances). Even some of the small roles played by Johnny Tri Nguyen and Veronica Ngo (as Hanoi Hannah!) lend credence to the story beautifully.

All four leads have their own personal demons and compelling backstories that keeps the audience engaged. Paul (played masterfully by Delroy Lindo, who deserves awards accolades for his vulnerable, animalistic and frightening work) carries a heavy burden from the war that has gradually driven him mad; which leads to his son David (Jonathan Majors) who surprises him by going along with the Bloods as a way to solidify their father-son relationship.

Eddie (Norm Lewis) hopes this trip would be a start to solve his problems with his life; including severe financial losses, numerous divorces and career setbacks; but he is also in conflict with how the gold should be used in support of black people. Otis (Clarke Peters) hopes to reconcile with his long lost love Tien (Le Y Lan), whom he left behind after the war ended; coming with a surprise illegitimate daughter, Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) who has suffered from discrimination due to her mixed racial background. And there is Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), who hopes to reclaim one last glory; a heroic act to cap off his life before it concludes.

It does sound like there’s a lot of material to unpack with such a simple plot and as such, the film does threaten to implode with how overstuffed it is. It’s a heist film, a war drama and a history lesson all in one. However, Lee and scriptwriter Kevin Willmott (who both rewrote the original script written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) thankfully make the main disparate elements come together through character interactions.  The satisfying climax provides much-needed closure. The inclusion of the three tangential characters who dispose of land mines could have been cut out, despite the efforts from Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Paakkonen.

It also helps that the filmmakers are not afraid to have fun in the proceedings; with plenty of gun battles, splatter and character-based comedy. The visual style (lensed by Newton Thomas Siegel) is befitting of its period/modern settings. The film is edited by Adam Gough and the use of aspect ratios is clever in how it discerns different time periods. Let’s not forget the operatic and rousing score by composer Terence Blanchard, which booms and fills the film with such emotional immediacy.

Overall, Da 5 Bloods is overblown, angry, messy, passionate and thought-provoking. In other words, it is a stellar Spike Lee jaunt and the story is as timely and relevant as ever. If the film had come out in the cinema, Lindo’s performance would be worth the price of admission; he is just that good.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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