Review: Spike Lee's rousing 'Da 5 Bloods' packs a timely punch
Courtesy of Netflix
Watching the new film “Da 5 Bloods,” you immediately understand this is a movie for the moment we’re currently living. Tackling themes of racial injustice, inequality, and African Americans fighting for a country that doesn’t care for their rights.
In other words, it’s definitely a Spike Lee joint.
Spike Lee is a relentless and uncompromising filmmaker who isn’t afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable. Weather it was the tag at the end of “BlacKkKlansman” that shoved the Charleston protests down our throats or here where Delroy Lindo stares at the screen and delivers a five-minute soliloquy to the camera in one unaltered take. But it’s important and essential filmmaking nonetheless, even if the nearly three-hour runtime of “Da 5 Bloods” doesn’t seem entirely warranted.
On the other hand, fans of the Oscar winning director will relish in his familiar troupes: jungle showdowns and war vets stricken with PTSD. Except in “Da 5 Bloods,” those ideals are taken to extreme lengths with Lee’s voice so prominent throughout, you’re waiting for the director to make a cameo and wink at the camera. But the movie doesn’t always flow in sync, as it often detours through overstuffed plot mechanics with some sequences more heightened and intense than others. Regardless, watching Lee go full commando and not giving a F$#$ is a rare feature in cinema and one that deserves admiration.
“Da 5 Bloods” is an interesting character study that unspools in an unusual manner and feels like a hodgepodge of six movies pieced together to form one cohesive vision. Cutting back and forth between timelines, the first hour feels like a band getting back together montage as the squad links up to track down a fortune that evaded them years earlier. Whereas the final stretch goes full Mexican stand-off, complete with a firefight in the jungle that showcases the best of what Lee can do. The film tries to find a balance, and you’ll either be on board for whatever the filmmaker is throwing on screen, or you’ll be ready to que up something else on your Netflix watchlist.
Part of that stems from Lee’s full-fledged confidence as he isn’t afraid to let his views be known: piecing archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr preaching during the 1960s civil rights movement or Trump rallies in which he throws up the subtitle “President Bone Spurs” instead of his name. “Da 5 Bloods” is another rip-roaring example of a Netflix film where they let an established filmmaker make as many statements as they wish. Something missing from the traditional Hollywood model.
Thankfully, “Da 5 Bloods” has an interesting batch of characters who ground the manic and offbeat pacing. From the start, the aging vets and performers have an earnest chemistry that signals a friendship spanning decades. Each of the bloods face their own adversity and the film gradually reveals those tribulations. There’s Otis (Clarke Peters) – the mannered and level headed one of the squad; Eddie (Norm Lewis) a down-on-his-luck businessmen who looks fine, but really isn’t; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a married family man along for the ride; and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most unpredictable of the group who wears a MAGA hat and has no problem declaring his allegiance to President Trump. Burdened with a wide range of nervous tics and triggers, Paul emerges as the film’s most fascinating subject and Lindo, in what is probably a career defining achievement – might find himself in Oscar contention if a ceremony goes forward next year.
It doesn’t take long for the old pals to rekindle their brotherhood, and after some mandated expository sequences featuring a wealthy Frenchmen (Jean Reno) and a former lover Otis dated while serving time in Vietnam, the group heads out into the vast wilderness. Their objective is told through flashbacks where we find out squad leader “Stormin’ Norman” (“Black Panther” himself Chadwick Boseman) died in combat after stumbling upon a treasure trove of gold bricks. The men want to find their fallen comrade and the money, though, there’s an ethical question on what to use the money for. Norman wanted the money to go back into underserved communities, but Paul has other plans, and therein lies a slew of conflicts that linger in the background.
The film doesn’t strive for realism or utilizing de-aging technology made famous by “The Irishman,” instead the flashbacks and wartime sequences – shot with gusto by cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegal (“Drive”) – show Boseman as a fresh-faced soldier even as his battalion appear like their middle aged selves. Siegal is also wise to make excellent use of different aspect ratios to help the audiences differentiate between past and present. It’s a genre trope that’s been milked at least three dozen times on screen, but when executed at the highest level, it can still seem fresh and inventive.
Lee tried to explore similar themes and tropes with the underseen “Miracle at St. Anna” – which isn’t as bad as people remember – though “Da 5 Bloods” seems to get a better grip and hold on the black wartime experience. The screenplay by Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo, with input by Lee and Kevin Willmott – benefits from a comrade amongst the four leads – plus the inclusion of Paul’s son played by Jonathan Majors – and the conversational dynamic that emboldens some of the quieter scenes. As for other subplots involving a white activist group (featuring “Richard Jewell” himself Paul Walter Hauer) and a group of Vietnam officers that are basically cartoon caricatures, it can undermine the bigger picture of what Lee is trying to say.
Still, in anyone else’s hands, those meaty diversions would feel like an overkill and it’s the final leg of “Da 5 Bloods” where it reaches the philosophical apex Lee was gunning for and the journey to get there doesn’t feel like a total drag. By making it a point to circle back and allow his work to be viewed as commentary for the world today (including cuts of Black Lives Matter protests and a declaration about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr), Lee showcases we still have work to do.
If you didn’t know how filming logistics work, you’d wonder if Lee cut this movie together in response to the demonstrations taking shape across the country. The important thing to note is that change is happening (slowly but surely) and movies like “Da 5 Bloods” – despite their wild and sometimes uneven qualities – speaks to the current climate and hits you with the unapologetic truth we all need to hear.
DA 5 BLOODS hits a Netflix Friday June 12th