The last time Spike Lee made an epic war film was the bloated result of Miracle at St. Anna back in 2008. But thankfully, his second attempt on the war genre is a lot better this time around. To the point that Da 5 Bloods ranks as one of Spike Lee’s best movies to date and a timely one as well, especially given the current issue that’s been going on today.
In Da 5 Bloods, four African-American war veterans (Delroy Lindo’s Paul, Clarke Peters’ Otis, Isiah Whitlock. Jr’s Melvin and Norm Lewis’ Eddie) return to Vietnam, hoping to find the remains of their deceased squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). But their search isn’t just about finding Norman’s remains, as they plan to retrieve a case of gold bars buried somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam during the war. Joining the search is Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) after finding out about his father’s plan.
Like Miracle at St. Anna, Da 5 Bloods carries more or less the same 2 1/2 lengths. The good news is, even with the movie’s sometimes erratic pace, it doesn’t feel overlong. Lee may have a lot in his plate, covering everything from the racial tension of the past and present to blending different genres altogether.
More than just a war movie, it is also a buddy comedy and an adventure genre about a treasure hunt in the vein of John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). Then, somewhere in between, Lee slips in a mix of social and pop-culture critiques, with the latter even go as far as mocking the Hollywood depiction of war films populated by Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris. If that’s not enough, he peppers Da 5 Bloods with lots of archival footage, snippets of speeches and news reports of past figures like Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. The movie addresses some of the characters’ personal agendas as well, namely the estranged father-and-son relationship between Paul and David and Otis’ previous affair with a Vietnamese prostitute Tiên (Lê Y Lan), who later finds out he has a daughter.
And yet, Lee does a great job handling for most parts of them. His direction packs with enough verve. Newton Thomas Sigel’s absorbing cinematography helps matter too, notably the technical switches between different aspect ratios and colour grading that signifies the flashback and present scenes. Terence Blanchard’s score is equally engaging, though it can be overbearing at times. Lee’s inclusion of late Marvin Gaye’s songs is spot-on, with the likes of “Got To Give It Up” and “What’s Happening Brother”.
Given the movie’s underlying themes and genres, Lee doesn’t shy away from graphic violence. Then, there’s the acting ensemble, beginning with Delroy Lindo’s remarkably tense performance as the outspoken and PTSD-inflicted Paul. Up-and-coming actor Jonathan Majors is a standout as well while the rest — including Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock. Jr, Norm Lewis and Chadwick Boseman — all deliver solid supports. The same praises also go to Mélanie Thierry as a French landmine expert and Jean Reno as a shady businessman.