I’ve maintained on this site that I’m only going to do full reviews of movies if they receive theatrical releases in my area and that I was going to stick with that even in the age of COVID, and so far even during quarantine I’ve only stretched that rule once and that was to review the film Bacurau. I made an exception for that one firstly because it did play in some New York and Los Angeles theaters with plans to expand right before the shutdown pushed it out of theaters and secondly because they had a special program in place that would give some of their On Demand revenue to a local theater. I’m bending my rules even further to give a full review to the new Spike Lee film Da 5 Bloods, a movie which to the best of my knowledge has never played in a single theater and debuted directly on Netflix. So why am I willing to give this a full review and not something like The Lovebirds? Well, for one this is a movie that I am fairly confident that Netflix would have at least given some kind of small theatrical run had there not been a pandemic. But the bigger reason is that, frankly, it’s Spike Lee. Spike Lee is a major auteur in a way that most direct-to-Netflix filmmakers are not and when he puts out a movie it’s a bit too much of an event to just take lightly.
The bulk of Da 5 Bloods is set in the present day and follows four African American men who met while serving in the Vietnam War. They, along with a fellow soldier who never made it back, collectively formed a unit that dubbed itself “the five bloods.” Today these men are middle aged and consist of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). These veterans have reunited to visit modern Vietnam and are hoping to locate the remains of their fallen comrade Norman (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman), but it quickly becomes apparent that they have an ulterior motive. At one point in the war they had apparently been tasked with delivering payment to a local American ally in the form of a chest of gold bars and after their helicopter went down they buried this treasure with the intention of coming back at a later date to keep the loot (which they styled as a form of reparations) but during the war the spot was napalmed and they lost track of it but think they may be able to find it now using modern satellite technology. However, finding the gold and bringing it back are two different things and it becomes apparent that there are other forces at play.
One of the more unexpected revelations I’ve come to about movie watching during the pandemic is the realization that a lot of my understanding of what movies are out there and what to expect from them has kind of been informed by the fact that I used to steadily watch twenty minutes of trailers ever week before every theatrical viewing experience. Without that I find myself seeing movies a bit more “blind” than usual and that was certainly the case for Da 5 Bloods, which I knew the most basic plot outline to but hadn’t seen a single trailer for and that maybe wasn’t for the best because the movie is pretty different than what I had thought it would be. As the movie started I was expecting the film to be an African American version of something like Richard Linklater’s recent film Last Flag Flying, which was a fairly reverent film about modern Vietnam veterans coming to terms with their past experiences. I was expecting that in part because I was thinking back to Spike Lee’s last movie about the African American military experience: 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a movie that was generally less “in your face” than the average Spike Lee movie and was seemingly more interested in simply adding a film about black protagonists to the pantheon of World War 2 epics. That movie was from a span in the 2000s when Lee was a little more interested in “playing nice” with what audiences expected from studio movies (in some ways it was the end of that stage of his career) and I probably should have gathered from its title that Da 5 Bloods would be something of a different beast.
Da 5 Bloods proves to be something that’s a bit more raucous and in tune with what Lee was doing with Chiraq and Blackkklansman. It makes a lot of intentionally bold decisions like shooting the Vietnam flashbacks in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio to match old news footage of the conflict and having the aged actors from the modern segments still playing their younger selves in these flashbacks. Some of these things work, some of them don’t. I certainly liked a lot of the basic ideas in the film: its exploration of the inherent tension of African Americans more or less forced to defend a country that hates them is strong and the film also creates a cadre of interesting characters and places them in interesting environments like modern Vietnam and those flashback scenes are really strong. However, I think the film starts to go off the rails in its second half when it rather bafflingly turns into a full-on action movie that openly riffs on the 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Pretty much from the moment that a certain thing happens involving a landmine the movie really started to lose me.
Let’s go back to the aforementioned The Miracle at St. Anna. At the time I felt like the heart of what didn’t work about that movie is that Lee seemed to have been so interested in making a movie about the black experience in World War II that he wasn’t overly discerning about which movie about the black experience in World War II he made and as a result he seemed to have just picked a random and frankly kind of corny spec script about the Italian campaign and added a lot of material about the African American experience (that was legitimately interesting) without corrected everything wrong with that original script. At least that’s the impression I got, looking into the history of that project I don’t think that’s actually true and that was intended from the beginning to be a movie about Buffalo Soldiers, but the flaws were there nonetheless. Funny thing is, it seems that with Da 5 Bloods Spike Lee really did take a script that was about a white (or perhaps mixed) group of soldiers and re-wrote it to be about the black experience. It’s certainly less stuffy than Miracle at St. Anna but it doesn’t gel together as well. I suspect that that original script was meant to deal with a generally less sympathetic cadre of soldiers whose interest in that lost gold felt more like straightforward greed than anything resembling reparations and that the Delroy Lindo character in particular was meant to be more of a straightforward villain and that the violent conflict would have felt more like a people getting punished for their lust for gold in keeping with John Huston’s film.
This is a movie that I really wanted to love. We’ve been starved for a decently budgeted movie from a great auteur and Spike Lee in particular seems like an important voice to be hearing from at this time, but the movie he’s given us is not the triumph I was hoping for so much as an interesting mess. It’s certainly not the first time that Lee has made a movie that’s a bit messy but it’s rare for him to do so with this kind of scale and budget. He can be more of a perfectionist when he wants to be, like he was when he made movies like Malcolm X, but that’s not really where he is right now but that isn’t entirely a bad thing… it just means his movies aren’t going to be perfect. In its own wild way this was a fun movie to watch and there is a lot in it to appreciate in its own way.
*** out of Five