Spike Lee fans, get ready: “Da 5 Bloods” takes the filmmaker’s familiar obsessions to an extreme, douses them in wartime grief and bloody jungle showdowns, all without an iota of compromise. In Lee’s lively, discursive look at a quartet of black Vietnam vets searching for their old squad leader’s remains (and the gold that was lost with him), the filmmaker’s voice permeates each scene with such mighty force it’s a wonder he never pulls a Porky Pig and bursts into the center of the frame.
“Da 5 Bloods” doesn’t always gel as it careens through overstuffed plot twists and disparate tones, with some big moments better executed than others. Still, that freewheeling energy is in short supply, and this pure distillation of a Spike Lee joint illustrates the rarity of an American filmmaker so confident in his sensibilities and style that nothing can slow them down.
Unfolding across an unusual pace for two and a half hours, “Da 5 Bloods” feels like a pair of intriguing movies jammed together. For its first 90 minutes or so, the movie suggests what might happen if Hal Ashby plugged his wistful depictions of veteran grief into “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” as Lee’s self-described “Bloods” reconvene in Ho Chi Minh to track down the fortune that eluded them decades ago. Then it speeds into a final hour that suggests a blaxploitation spin on “Rambo,” and at that point one either gives into Lee’s anything-goes rhythms or gives up on them outright. But the latter path is a lot more fun.
Lee’s confidence emanates from some of the unexpected tangents he makes along the way, from a jarring cutaway to American Revolutionary casualty Crispus Attucks to footage from a Trump rally, and while he never attempts anything as ambitious as the ripped-from-the-headlines documentary coda to “BlacKkKlansman,” the movie is the latest example of a Netflix-funded auteur passion project where its filmmaker takes every audacious swing he can.
Fortunately, “Da 5 Bloods” benefits from a set of appealing characters that stabilizes its many disjointed parts. From the outset, the aging veterans have the kind of playful appeal of longtime pals eager to rekindle the spirit of their youth. Each of them face different personal hurdles that gradually impinge on their current situation: There’s level-headed Otis (Clarke Peters), who makes a shocking discovery about his family over the course of the trip; Eddie (Norm Lewis), a cocksure businessman whose smile hides his money troubles; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a married family man growing tired of domesticity; and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the wildcard of the group who inexplicably wears a MAGA hat and declares his allegiance to Donald Trump. A mess of PTSD tics and rage issues, Paul emerges as the movie’s most fascinating centerpiece, a contradiction that plays for laughs one moment and registers with deep tragedy the next. This time, Lee seems less invested in American racism than the way it has preyed upon these black Americans to the point where their only potential catharsis comes overseas.
One night of heavy drinking is all it takes to rekindle the Bloods’ bond, just in time for Paul’s grown son (a fine if underutilized Jonathan Majors) to make an unexpected appearance. After some perfunctory exposition surrounding a deal with some shady French businessmen and the former Vietnamese prostitute Otis dated in his service days, the group heads out to the wilderness. Their mission finds its purpose through intermittent flashbacks, where we learn that squad leader “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman in valiant hero mode) died in combat after they group came across a suitcase full of gold. The men want to find the remains of their fallen buddy alongside the loot, though they can’t agree on what to do with it, and therein lies a conflict with many complications to follow.
Unlike the muted dynamic of Richard Linklater’s similar-on-paper “Last Flag Flying,” Lee takes a maximalist approach to exploring his subject’s memories. The wartime sequences unfold as a peculiar hybrid of memory and dream, with Boseman appearing as a fresh-faced soldier even as his peers appear as their middle-aged selves. The filmmaker eschews the time-shrinking magic of “The Irishman” in favor of a stranger visual gag, though it works well enough in small doses, thinks in part to “Drive” cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel (in his first Lee feature) making terrific use of 16mm film and a 4:3 aspect ratio to delineate between the two eras, one of which has been so intertwined with historical memory and previous filmmaking efforts that the movie doesn’t bother with realism.
The last time Lee attempted to explore black wartime experiences with “Miracle at St. Anna,” similarly flitting between two eras, the result was often too murky for its own good. “Da 5 Bloods” bears a closer resemblance to “Inside Man” for the way it uses genre clothing as a wry Trojan horse. Here, the meandering aspects of the screenplay (originally written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, but clearly Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott had their way with it) benefit from the appealing dynamic that the Bloods share throughout; they bicker and fume to dangerous extremes, but always with something to say. As for a bizarre subplot involving a group of white volunteers committed to mine clearance that the group meets in the jungle (including Mélanie Thierry and “Richard Jewell” breakout Paul Walter Hauser), the less said the better; the same goes for the cardboard cutout Vietnam officers on the Bloods’ tail, who run dangerously close to stereotypes.
In another movie, this extra fat on the bone might ruin the whole body, but “Da 5 Bloods” expands into a full-on adventure yarn by its lengthy final passage, and it’s a lot of fun to follow it there. The violent showdown (replete with Jean Reno as a raspy villain seemingly lifted from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) gives way to amusing one-liners (“We Bloods don’t die, we multiply”), and speed along with Lee’s relentless ability to undercut one jarring, grisly moment with more serious connotations — from a clunky death scene to a powerful monologue that transcends its pulpy surroundings through a single emotionally-charged raised fist.
With Terence Blanchard’s jazzy trumpet guiding the saga along, “Da 5 Bloods” takes off where most movies wound start winding down, cramming intriguing details into its closing passage just when it couldn’t get more topical. (Yes, Black Lives Matter worms its way into the story, and its abrupt appearance adds an unexpected layer of poignance that deepens the more you think about it.) As with Steve McQueen’s underappreciated “Widows,” Lee seems keen on grappling with real-world problems while keeping the entertainment value in check, with some of the weird narrative energy found in hodgepodges like “Chi-Raq” and “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” clarified by the central chemistry in play. The movie wanders off in some odd directions, but the Bloods’ bond keeps it grounded.
And it all circles back to the inherent appeal of a director who does whatever he pleases, cohesion be damned. Across nearly 40 years of filmmaking, Lee has crafted a dense body of work that straddles the line between fiction and documentary, tying it together with a personality as urgent and combustible as the actual movies. American culture keeps finding new reasons to celebrate “Do the Right Thing” for its prescience and the many tragic reasons it remains relevant to this day, but such appreciations often miss out on the essence of a filmmaker as invested in challenging the language of cinema as its polemical reach.
“Da 5 Bloods” is best appreciated on these experimental terms. Lee’s identity may be New York to the core, but he has a lot less in common with Sidney Lumet than Jean-Luc Godard, another director in constant search of new ways to create art that speaks to a complex and ever-changing society. “Da 5 Bloods” is the kind of movie less invested in making the symphony work together than what happens through the dissonance of sounds, which makes the end result timelier than even Lee himself could have planned: A loose, caustic look at the Vietnam war through the prism of black experiences, “Da 5 Bloods” wrestles with the specter of the past through the lens of a very confusing present, and settles into a fascinated jumble as messy and complicated as the world surrounding its release.
“Da 5 Bloods” premieres on Netflix on June 12, 2020.