There’s no doubt that Spike Lee is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the game. He is never afraid to stare the dark side of America directly in the face, and he takes risks other directors would never dream of even on his more forgettable efforts. He has no intent on conforming to the machine on his new film Da 5 Bloods, a Netflix original that takes on the black experience as it relates to the Vietnam War. This is a profound film that doesn’t shy away from its heavy subject matter, even going as far to show graphic archival footage of real-life atrocities. Everything about this movie contains Lee trademarks, from the title of the movie to the constant homages of classic films to his handling of race in America. However, Da 5 Bloods seems to lose itself on the way to its destination, becoming a completely different and lesser movie than the one Lee initially appeared to be making. At first glance, this is an introspective look at how war affects the black men who were used for America’s gain and then left in the dirt as soon as they made it back home. But as it goes on, it turns into a bloody action-adventure flick with cliché writing choices and shallow character decisions. Da 5 Bloods tries to be too many ambitious things at once, and because of that the messages and themes get lost in the chaos.
The movie immediately starts with tons of documentary-like footage of the Vietnam War and how it affected the black community of America in a disproportionate manner. These first five minutes alone get across Lee’s general point in a condensed form: America sent black citizens to do the dirty work in this pointless war and caused an entire generation to be damaged for life. Viewers are then introduced to the protagonists: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), four Vietnam vets who have returned to the battleground to retrieve the remains of their fallen brother (Chadwick Boseman) and find the gold they buried during their tour. The structure of this film is Apocalypse Now-like, which is clearly intentional given the many references Lee sprinkles throughout (‘Ride of the Valkyries” plays as they embark on their journey, a blatant Apocalypse Now graphic blankets the background of a club early in the movie, etc.) Once the movie embarks on its journey into the jungles of Vietnam, it transforms into a adventure resembling The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which the four men and Paul’s caring son (Jonathan Majors) defend the gold from conflicting parties while trying to reconcile their inner demons relating to the death of their friend and the war in general.
There is no question that Lee dreams big with his vision here, and that is what makes him such a revolutionary force in filmmaking. Certain aspects of his direction could easily have fallen flat in a lesser filmmakers’ work, but Lee pulls it off because of his creativity and his deep motivations behind these choices. He uses a different aspect ratio for each time period that the movie is depicting, making the flashbacks have a distinct and nostalgic feel compared to the modern and spacious feel of the present-day scenes. His constant use of archival footage and real-life imagery mixed in with the dramatic work also enhances the message he is expressing, letting the audience soak in the dramatic themes by seeing them play out in actuality. Most, if not all, of the strengths Da 5 Bloods has involve the powerful messages Lee is trying to send about the black experience in America and how the war never ends for the people who were on the battlefield. We sent our own citizens into this war to die and then demonized them when they returned simply for serving their country. For many people, such as Delroy Lindo’s character, this permanently warped their perception of reality and left them forever scarred and paranoid. The first 40 minutes and the last ten minutes hit these themes home the most powerfully, and are the best periods of Da 5 Bloods.
What also stands out is the fantastic performances from every actor, but especially Lindo as Paul, who has never been able to recover from his friend’s death and has always remained on the battlefield mentally. Lindo’s portrayal of PTSD is the most harrowing and accurate in recent memory, containing some unflinching monologues in which the actor completely disappears from sight. Paul is a Trump supporter who believes he hasn’t been given his fair share in life, and while his actions may not be understandable or even comprehensible, Lindo’s performance always gives you a window into the man who exists within the trauma. Even when the script goes off the deep end during the second and third acts, Lindo remains the shining light in every single scene he is a part of.
In the end, what keeps this movie from truly succeeding is Lee’s tendency to go on tangents and switch the identity of the film. Because of this, Da 5 Bloods is a disjointed experience that doesn’t feel like it hits any target that it aims for. Even in the comparatively strong first hour, the movie drags its feet with setup and fruitless relationships, creating a sometimes thematically rich but more often confusing and boring experience. I was constantly waiting for the character work to develop more and for the movie to truly dive deep into the insecurities of its protagonists as it went, but it ends up going the opposite direction in the second and third acts. Once the five main characters come across their gold, Da 5 Bloods turns into an awkward thriller where characters make violent and out-of character decisions for no reason, people get predictably blown up by landmines (a cheap plot device that was used far too often), and shootouts occur that have little dramatic weight. Lee tries to mix his socio-political commentary with a war adventure plot, and since the latter is so trite and makes so little sense, the former never lifts off the ground.
During the last hour of the movie, almost every single scene and decision had absolutely no logic to it, including decisions that the script was justifying as being correct. I understand that the main characters are affected by their surroundings and have an altered view of reality because of the war, but when the screenplay itself seems to forget this, all momentum Da 5 Bloods had is lost. The way the main characters’ storylines end does nothing to promote the message that Lee is trying to send about the war and about their mentalities. By the end, I was just confused as to what specific direction Lee thought he was going with this film and why I just sat through two hours and 35 minutes of incoherence. This movie really feels its length, and I felt that 30 to 45 minutes could have been cut out and the end product wouldn’t have suffered. At the very end, Lee shows more footage of the Black Lives Matter movement and other important images of empowerment, but this just feels tacked on to remind audiences of the themes that got lost along the journey.
Da 5 Bloods is one of the more disappointing watches I’ve had recently. Every time I was hoping Lee would bring everything together, he just goes in another odd direction that took me out of the narrative even further. When the credits rolled I wanted to sink into the couch, because I feel that Lee is an inventive and visionary filmmaker who could have done much better with this concept. I also love everything he tries to say in the first act of this movie, so the path the narrative ended up taking made me even more conflicted. With Da 5 Bloods it seems that Lee tried to check too many boxes in one story, which ends up forcing all of these ambitions to never quite pan out. While aspects like Lindo’s performance and Lee’s inherent creativity stand out, it is never enough to reverse the nonsensical decisions made in the script for the last hour.
I give Da 5 Bloods a C.