From the dual hearts of darkness of midcentury America—the Vietnam war and racism—inextricably rooted in U.S. history, in a constant dialectic between then and now, on account of the devastating immutability underlined by the faces of 60-year-old actors who play themselves as young men without the benefit of The Irishman’s digital make-up, Da 5 Bloods is a narrative/political/emotional tour de force in line with the more bomb-throwing, chaotic and unsettled vein of Spike Lee’s oeuvre—which is often also the most interesting.
Adding his name to a long tradition of American auteurs (from Wayne to Coppola, Cimino, De Palma, Stone, Stallone and Mel Gibson), Lee ventures into the jungles of Southeast Asia, referencing Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Rambo (“All them Hollyweird motherfuckers trying to go back and win the Vietnam War”), his characters accompanied by cameos from Mohammed Ali, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the notes and voice of Marvin Gaye and the ghost of Chadwick Boseman (the actor who played Black Panther).
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isaiah Withlock Jr.) return to Vietnam for one last mission: recovering the remains of their beloved captain, Stormin’ Norman (Boseman), buried in a remote area of the jungle. Along with those remains—this is the most secret part of the mission—the four remaining Bloods also want to recover a trunk of gold bullion, the cargo of an American military aircraft shot down by Vietcong forces.
Luca Celada’s interview with Spike Lee
Lee choreographs the reunion of the friends with the affectionate tones of a Grumpy Old Men-style comedy, which then explodes into sudden flashes of drama: the firecrackers with which a mutilated Vietnamese child is terrorizing the veterans, mocking them—“G-Men! G-Men!”—when they threw themselves to the ground; the pleas and then the wrath of a man who tries to sell them a chicken (“You killed my father and mother!”); the appearance of a daughter whose existence was previously unknown. The past—the last battle they fought together—“bursts in” with the screen shrinking down to 4/3 format, as the film becomes more grainy and Boseman’s “pure,” beautiful and heroic youth clashes with the wrinkles, pot bellies and white hair of actors much older than him.
As before in Miracle at St. Anna, the voice of an “enemy” woman on the radio (it’s Hanoi Hannah, who here announces, in split screen, the killing of Martin Luther King) serves as a reminder to African-American soldiers who have been sent to die far from home, in much higher numbers than white soldiers. “This is not my war,” we see Muhammad Ali say in a famous speech from 1978.
Lee and his co-screenwriter, Danny Bilson, sketch the character biographies in broad strokes: Eddie (who paid for the mission) seems to be the one who’s doing best; Otis (the quiet one) visits the Vietnamese prostitute he fell in love with; Paul (who wears a Make America Great Again hat) is the one who struggles most visibly with his inner demons, to the point that his son, whom he doesn’t get along with, has secretly followed him to Ho Chi Minh City to keep an eye on him.
Luca Celada’s interview with Delroy Lindo
Their departure up the river is accompanied by The Ride of the Valkyries—subtlety is not one of Spike Lee’s trademarks. From that point on, the film goes into a progressively more hallucinatory dimension, including from a chromatic point of view, as well as a series of subplots. The latter clearly hint at the French component of the interventions in Vietnam, highlighted before in the plantation scene in Apocalypse Now—which here include Jean Reno in the role of an adventurer who is not to be trusted and Melanie Thierry in that of a French girl who gave up her inheritance to redeem her country’s colonial past by defusing old landmines.
Lee throws ideas onto the screen like a series of ambushes in the jungle, or a grand fireworks-laden finale. Some fare better than others, but it is the intellectual energy that carries with it, in an almost physical manner, the two-and-a-half hours of the film.
Finally, the splatter ending summons nuances that recall King Lear.