If ever there were a time for a new Spike Lee movie, it’s now.
Cue “Da 5 Bloods,” a look at black Vietnam veterans seeking to find their former leader and something more as they return to the battlefield decades later. It’s not a classic — it’s too long and the storytelling isn’t tight enough, and there’s enough plot for three movies. But it is righteous in its depiction of black experience, veteran and civilian.
Like any soldiers in Vietnam, the Bloods, as they call themselves, struggled with the reception when they came home from an unpopular war, treated not as heroes but as something else, something uglier. And for them, of course, the reception was cold on more than one front: We were defending rights we didn’t even have, one character says.
Lee’s films have never backed down from confronting race head on; “Do the Right Thing” might be the best primer available if you’re trying to understand the rage stemming from systemic racism and police violence fueling the protests that continue to take place across the country. But they’re not polemics. They’re movies, made with incredible skill, plenty of humor, drama and gorgeous shots. “Da 5 Bloods” is a beautiful film (Lee worked with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel), with a lot of humor, winning performances and the technique at which Lee excels.
It’s just a little all over the place.
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) served together, part of the disproportionately large number of black soldiers on the front line in Vietnam. (Lee provides a running history lesson about black people in the military throughout the film, using a technique similar to that in “BlacKKKlansman.”)
Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), a legendary soldier and leader, commanded their unit. He knows his way around a battle, how to fight. But he also knows what black soldiers face in the field and at home, and he helps the men deal with it. A scene in which the Bloods find out that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated is breathtaking — Norman manages to find a way for them to express their anger without letting it overtake them. They will remain soldiers, but soldiers who feel betrayed, taken out at the knees by the news. Boseman is fantastic here, as is Lee’s direction — I gasped at one point.
But Norman is killed in battle. Now the surviving four are back, decades later, to try to find his remains — and something else they left in Vietnam.
I won’t say what, but it threatens to drive a wedge between them that the intervening years have not. They’ve all had various struggles, some more than others. Paul in particular has battled demons. He’s a Trump-voting MAGA-hat wearing contrarian, the one closest to Norman, who battles (and denies) PTSD. He is less than thrilled when his son (Jonathan Majors) shows up unexpectedly, demanding to accompany them.
That’s plenty of story already. But there are a lot of loose ends to be tied up from their days as soldiers, as well as a lot of complications the present-day trip inspires. A lot. There are old romances, a shady French businessman (the great Jean Reno), a team of mine-removal experts, firefights, marauders and more. You’d be forgiven if you thought, well, at least a snake doesn’t bite anyone.
Oops.
That’s too bad, because when the Bloods are together, the film really finds its footing. All the actors convincingly portray old friends whose shared experience ultimately outweighs their considerable differences. No one else can understand what they went through. The performances are uniformly winning; Lindo in particular makes Paul a character seething with self-loathing and guilt, desperate to find purpose outside Norman’s circle of leadership. (Majors is quite good as his son, too.)
Lee’s is an important voice. He manages to make a last-minute nod to events of the day. He doesn’t have Stormin’ Norman’s focus, not here, but he does have his passion, and then some. “Da 5 Bloods” may not be the masterpiece you’d wish for, but it is a welcome contribution to Lee’s work, and to the conversations we all need to be having.
Three stars
out of four stars
Rated R; violence, grisly images, language
2 hours, 34 minutes
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