DA 5 BLOODS. I have long been fascinated by the American War in Vietnam. This is partly due to having cut my teeth on the bombastic, irresponsible, large-scale action movies of the 1980s, an era in American cinema when exaggerated male physicality and unconscionable, grotesque violence displaced thoughtful examination of the true wages of war. War was big business on a marketing and merchandising level. We were inundated with war toys, comics, shows and movies. America was only starting to figure out what the war in Vietnam had done to the soldiers who served there, and had little idea what it would do to the structural integrity of American culture, but Big Business had it wired as a profit center.
There were and are counterpoints to the crude commercialization of the nightmare of that conflict. Even in mainstream American cinema, artists were parsing the immediate and lasting impacts of the Vietnam experience. I became deeply enamored with Apocalypse Now (1979) as a pre-teen; Full Metal Jacket (1987) opened my eyes (Ludovico Treatment style) to the horrors of war mocked by Hollywood action movies and my own silly pantomimes. Later, the writing of Michael Herr, Tim O'Brien and Karl Marlantes would further illuminate, and render poetic, the lives of boots on the ground.
While all that art is of merit and mostly even handed, it is also all pretty white. Glimpses of the African American experience in Vietnam in mainstream movies, TV and literature usually come to us as B-story or flashback. Not surprisingly, it has been criminally marginalized and under-represented. So when word came down that Spike Lee was making a Vietnam movie, I got excited.
I don't think I need to dissect Lee's body of work; he is one of the most significant American artists alive today. (And, notably but unsurprisingly, has often struggled to get his movies made.) He finally got a long-overdue Academy Award for the screenplay of BlacKkKlansman (2018) — I tend to devalue the Oscars, culturally and otherwise, but the guy's been at the forefront of American cinema for decades and it was time — which I suspect gave him the juice to go to Southeast Asia and make a two-and-a-half-hour action-drama about war, injustice, PTSD, imbalances of power, fathers and sons, war profiteering, community activism. Kind of everything. That complexity, that narrative ambition, is both breathtaking and a little frustrating to behold.
The five Bloods, reduced to four when we meet them in the present day, all served together in the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army during the war in Vietnam. They have returned to bring home the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman), plus the cache of CIA bullion they buried in 1971. Shuttling between the operation that took Norman's life and the expedition to bring him home, Da 5 Bloods unpacks the dynamics among the surviving friends and the shattering after-effects of losing their leader. Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most clearly damaged by his experience, wears a MAGA hat and slips back into the anger and racist rhetoric of wartime. He feuds with his son David (Jonathan Majors), a proud Morehouse alum and schoolteacher who infiltrates the mission, and perceives betrayal all around. This leaves Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.) to try to keep the group together and all moving in the same direction. (I'm not sure of the significance of the characters being named for The Temptations). Not that everybody else has it all figured out: Otis still harbors feelings for Tiên (Y. Lan), with whom he had an affair during the war and who now serves as intermediary to help the Bloods smuggle the gold out of Vietnam; Eddie is famous but destitute; and Melvin drinks too much and suppresses the effects of his wounds. Along the way, they catastrophically cross paths with the well-intentioned members of an ordnance removal organization and a heavily armed group of young Vietnamese men unrecovered from the multi-generational trauma of the American invasion.
Like everything Lee does, Da 5 Bloods is bold, intentional and speaks with an unmistakable voice: It is undeniably a substantial and entertaining work of art. There are times, though, when the effort to tell many stories, or so many threads of the same vast narrative tapestry, feels burdensome. And the technical execution — cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, editing by Adam Gough, both formidable forces in their respective fields — feels rushed compared to Lee's usual standard. Scenes are shot in one take, with medium shots and a fair amount of hand-held camera, and even at its daunting running time, the movie sometimes feels unintentionally elliptical. The soundtrack, using alternate takes and isolated vocals from the recording of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On alongside Terence Blanchard's somber, full-throated score, is a work of genius in itself, but suggests an atmosphere apart from what we're seeing on screen. It's possible that, having watched Da 5 Bloods in a theater, I would see it differently, and I might upon re-watching it. Which is maybe the more cogent comment: This is a movie that, despite its shagginess, has more to say than we might be able to synthesize after one viewing. It is not "perfect" but it may be better than that. R. 154M. NETFLIX.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.