DA 5 BLOODS is Spike Lee’s new Vietnam War joint that happened to be produced by Netflix, so when our current global nightmare thwarted theatrical release they didn’t have to delay it, they just put it right onto their service, making it one of Pandemic Summer’s biggest blockbusters in my opinion. For now this is our James Bond and our Top Gun (I won’t say Wonder Woman, because it’s very male oriented).
Like so many of Lee’s movies, it finds interesting ways to visually connect history to the present. Think of DO THE RIGHT THING’s showcasing of the photos and quotes of Dr. King and Malcolm, MALCOLM X’s coda of real people (including a newly freed Nelson Mandela) saying “I am Malcolm X!,” or BLACKKKLANSMAN’s montage with the murder of Heather Heyer, the real David Duke and the president’s other Very Fine People in Charlottesville. Following in that tradition, DA 5 BLOODS opens with historical footage and photos establishing Those Uncertain Times of the Vietnam era.
Muhammad Ali explains his refusal to kill people who haven’t done anything to him on behalf of people who have. To the tune of “Inner City Blues,” we see black soldiers in Vietnam, whitey on “Da Moon,” Black Panthers, Malcolm, Martin, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis. We alternate between brutality in Vietnam and at home: burning monks, the Kent State shootings, the street execution from that famous photo, police clubbing protesters at the DNC, the children burned with napalm. When the war ends and this volley of fast-speed documentary turmoil subsides, the frame stretches and contracts to widescreen, and Saigon dissolves to modern tourism-friendly Ho Chi Minh City, where four of our titular quintet meet up in a hotel lobby, hugging and hand shaking, sipping the first of many fruity umbrella cocktails, in a present that will repeatedly bleed into the past.
It’s a reunion, a vacation, a night on the town, with some grim business to take care of, at first left unspoken. Paul (Delroy Lindo, BROKEN ARROW) is the one who seems most angry and troubled by his war experience. He’s paranoid and uncomfortable with Vietnamese people talking to him or looking at him for too long. He immediately grumbles about immigrants and outs himself as a Trumper. At first I couldn’t believe he’d have the gall to show up to Vietnam wearing his “Vietnam Veteran” hat, but when we find out his other hat is a MAGA it makes more sense.
The other three – Otis (Clarke Peters, JOHN WICK), Eddie (Norm Lewis, STAND BY ME) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., BROOKLYN’S FINEST), seem more adjusted, though Melvin’s demons come out when he gets drunk. They’re all very good at trying to talk Paul down, tell him it’s okay, that they all go through it.
They’ve come back ostensibly to recover two things: number one, the remains of their commander Norm (Chadwick Boseman, GODS OF EGYPT), an idol to all of them not just for his combat heroism, but because of his influence on them as black men. They say he was their Malcolm and their Martin.
Number two, there was this matter of a trunk of gold bars they found in a crashed CIA plane and buried, because Norm told them it should be reparations for the black community.
Paul’s somewhat estranged son David (Jonathan Majors, HOSTILES), a school teacher and proud Moorhouse graduate (Spike always gets that in there), shows up unexpectedly at the hotel, demanding to be in on the mission. Though he uses threats to force his way in, his actions support that he’s genuinely trying to look after his dad, who he thinks is “acting crazier than usual.” The others are suspicious of him, but come to like him pretty quick.
A hired guide named Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen, TOM-YUM-GOONG, POWER KIDS, CLASH) welcomes them and acts as their guide, but reluctantly accepts their request to leave them when they get to the jungle. He’s not in on Otis meeting with his old girlfriend Tiên (Lê Y Lan, Nurse #2, IP MAN 3), who helps set up a deal with sleazy French money launderer Desroche (Jean Reno, ALEX CROSS).
I like the dreamy way the time periods blur together. Flashbacks are marked by a different aspect ratio and film stock, like MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI (which Lindo was in!), but there’s no recasting or IRISHMANing. I wasn’t sure what Spike was doing at first. For a while the camera seems to focus on Norm and keep the others to the side or in the shadows. But soon you can see that they’re not made up any different, their gray hair even visible. They’re old in their memories.
In the present the city looks much different, but they go to a club themed around APOCALYPSE NOW (I thought that was clever – turns out it’s a real place!) and hear songs you would hear in a period movie (“Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers, “[Don’t Worry] If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” by Curtis Mayfield) and sing Marvin Gaye songs together. There are multiple Marvin songs on the soundtrack, sometimes just the bare vocal tracks. It’s amazing to hear all the subtleties of his voice – and how quietly he’s singing – when the music isn’t there.
At another bar David meets Hedy (Melanie Thierry, BABYLON A.D., LARGO WINCH), a French woman who runs a charity to find and disarm landmines with her partners Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen, BLACKKKLANSMAN) and Simon (Paul Walter Hauser, RICHARD motherfuckin JEWELL). That’s another way the story contracts time: here the war lingers not just in the memories of the traumatized (like the locals who accuse them of killing their parents), but in the literal sense of children still getting limbs blown off by leftover explosives. This scene also made me nervous as hell during later scenes as they run around with a metal detector looking for treasure. They’re having a great time and I’m wincing the whole time, preparing for sudden tragedy.
There’s plenty of suspense, and the expected drama of an action or heist movie like betrayals, jockeying for bigger cuts, ethical disagreements, violence. Still, the Spike Lee movie this kept reminding me of was GET ON THE BUS. Alot of it is just about these friends going on a trip together, bonding, talking. And there’s the estranged father and son working through some things, the political disagreements, and the way issues are brought up that could be described as contrived, but that I accept more as stylized or theatrical.
Some things seem too easy or coincidental. David accidentally finds gold while trying to take a shit, the landmine removal experts happen to walk by randomly in the middle of the jungle right after one of them stepped on one. But to me this stuff doesn’t matter, it’s like Spike is saying the mechanics of the story aren’t as important to him as the stuff that happens on top and in between and around them. You won’t get the most plausible adventure story you’ve ever seen, but you will see the slow simmering of Lindo’s macho, broken character, trying to keep it together, wobbling along the brink of guilt and anger, culminating in a long take monologue looking straight into the camera in closeup. And it’s cool to see this particular Spike Lee trademark performed in the sunny outdoors, on location in Thailand-as-Vietnam.
There’s an awkward “stinking badges” line in tribute to the movie’s most obvious “men fighting over treasure” forebearer. Of course I was more excited that they brought up RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and MISSING IN ACTION (referring to it as Walker, Texas Ranger) to make fun of the idea of there still being P.OW.s to rescue. Later Paul accidentally demonstrates that he’s no Rambo when a snake jumps on him, he screams and wriggles around and it bites him and a minute later he trips and rolls sloppily down a hill and gets his foot caught in a trap. These are pretty tough old guys but they’re still very much old guys.
I know this is a movie about the Vietnam era and about right now, but as someone who was particularly movie-crazy during the ‘90s it’s cool to see a new movie starring Lindo and with Reno in a major role. There was that time after Lindo blew up in MALCOLM X, CROOKLYN and CLOCKERS when he would pop up in a bunch of major films: GET SHORTY, BROKEN ARROW, A LIFE LESS ORDINARY, ROMEO MUST DIE, GONE IN 60 SECONDS, etc. And during that same period Reno had become an international star from LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL and ended up in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, GODZILLA and RONIN.
I forgot that the great Vietnamese action star Veronica Ngo (FURIE, CLASH, THE LAST JEDI) was gonna be in this too. She has a few scenes as Hanoi Hannah, real life DJ propagandizing the black soldiers with unfortunately very accurate points about how their country treats them. Ngo’s English is good – if Hollywood lures her here they better not give her bullshit movies like they always do to Asian superstars crossing over. (Oh, who am I fooling?)
The script was originally written by Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo (TRANCERS, ZONE TROOPERS, THE ROCKETEER) and was not about the experience of black veterans. For some reason Oliver Stone was gonna do it – I don’t see what it would’ve added to his Vietnam repertoire. Luckily Lee got it and rewrote it with his CHI-RAQ and BLACKKKLANSMAN partner Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA) and it became a period movie for this very moment, when people around the world, and in this country in particular, are fed up with history repeating itself repeating itself; of feeling they bought into a system that refuses to buy into them; of endless street executions and beatings and outrageous injustices; of the wars past and present, overseas and over American cities, killing and crushing and humiliating and turning precious lives into just more footage for the historical montages of the future, leaving survivors traumatized and with little hope of restitution, split five ways or not.
DA 5 BLOODS (particularly with Terence Blanchard’s score) recalls classical Hollywood storytelling, but it loves to get messy and experimental. It’s devastating and furious, yet warm, human and funny. It’s absolutely timely, yet clearly timeless. Yep, that’s a Spike Lee joint all right. A really good one.