Da 5 Bloods is the latest from controversial director Spike Lee. Lee has covered a lot of ground in his career, which is a massive understatement I know, but meant to convey that he’s done just about every sort of movie and done them well. Breaking on to the scene with the powerful Do The Right Thing, he’s also covered sports (He Got Game), biopics (Malcolm X), heists (Inside Job), documentaries (When the Levees Broke) and finally the award-winner (BlacKkKlansman).
But at the center of all his movies is the issue of race and racism, the debilitating effects of its toxicity on those affected the most. And though Da 5 Bloods represents his first foray into a new genre, the war movie, at its core it continues with the same themes. Adapted from the original script penned by Danny Bilson and Paul de Meo, Lee and Kenny Willmott (who co-wrote BlacKkKclansman) took over to add their own additional parts of the story.
After opening with a quick run through the racial turmoil of the 50s-70s in the United States along with how it impacted various aspects of the Vietnam war, Da 5 Bloods introduces us to its main characters Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). They’ve are four of the 5 Bloods, returning to Vietnam 40 years later to honor their fallen brother, Stormin Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and retrieve his body lost all those years ago in battle.
But they’ve returned for something else as well: a bounty of gold they’d found on a downed plane while on a recon and rescue mission. Norman lost his life in the battle that ensued at this spot, so the trip back into the jungle has multiple angles.
From a narrative perspective, Da 5 Bloods isn’t all that different from another Netflix original, Triple Frontier. The latter featured a group of disillusioned ex-soldiers trying to make their way out of the back country with a money heist (so to speak) that isn’t necessarily theirs. From a strict X’s and O’s standpoint, the films are remarkably similar in pacing, action, twists and turns.
But Da 5 Bloods runs much deeper. There are father-son struggles, love and loss, atrocities of war, history lessons, the unbreakable bond of friendships and brotherhood born out of the most horrific of circumstances and of course how inequality in America has shaped these men over the years.
Lee makes an interesting, but sort of logical choice, when it comes to going back in time to see how the original 5 Bloods were bonded in war. The older actors play themselves with no effort to de-age them (so to speak). At first it makes for something of a jarring image, seeing these older dudes who are most definitely their younger selves. But we end up seeing the emotions in both time periods through the same sets of faces. And it helps hammer home the point that who they were in war isn’t all that different than what they are now.
Delroy Lindo is spectacular as Otis, a man long since broken by his time serving in Vietnam and the subsequent life struggle that came from it. He has multiple breaking-the-fourth-wall moments meant to hammer home his impossible internal struggle. He’s completely believable as a veteran ruined and resolute in his anger. He carries much of the movie and could be up for an award, but is held back because there are other problematic pieces here.
Da 5 Bloods starts as an interesting look into the disaster of war and what it leaves behind, as well as the disaster of social injustices perpetrated on African Americans during this time period, but devolves somewhat quickly into a by-the-book money grab movie. And it’s something of a shame.
Overall, Da 5 Bloods is an uneven movie. That might stem from the two different sets of scripts, or at the aspects of it that Lee and Willmott took over when they refocused the message. Without giving too much away, Da 5 Bloods adds at least five characters it doesn’t need and they contribute to a burdensome two-and-a-half hour-plus running time. Adding varying relationships and storylines beyond just the original five waters down scenes without advancing the story at all.
There are powerful in Da 5 Bloods for sure, disturbing pieces to watch, and it does provide a look into how both war and racism (on their own or combined) can ruin people. But these themes would have existed without some of the ancillary parts of the film.
Overall, Da 5 Bloods is almost two different movies. The character study of Otis and his friends is fantastic and heartbreaking. As an anti-war film, with the devastation it brought on a generation of young black men, Da 5 Bloods is an A+. But at the same time, it tries to be a few other things with a few too many people and that ultimately drags it away from the best, most cinematic, parts.
I’d love to see a shorter cut because there’s something award-winning in here. But as a whole, Da 5 Bloods struggles under the weight of too much gold and the other people who get brought along for the trip.