Da 5 Bloods review – an urgent, gruesome masterpiece

Writer-director Spike Lee brings his unique passion and style to the legacy of the Vietnam War to extraordinary, explosive effect

It’s pretty much a tautology to label a Spike Lee film as “timely” or “relevant,” but it can’t help but feel a little pre-ordained that his latest feature, Da 5 Bloods, arrives just as the western world is having its longest, most honest conversation about race in a generation. Tackling both systemic, institutional racism and the cycles of violence brought about by American imperialism, Lee’s Vietnam-set epic is, judged purely on scale, perhaps his biggest, most ambitious joint yet. It’s also simply masterful, a wild collision of styles and tones that is exhausting and exhilarating.

During the Vietnam War, black soldiers made up 32% of the US Army, despite the fact that they only made up 11% of the US population. This society-wide disregard for black lives is where Da 5 Bloods starts its story, as a squad of four black veterans head back to Vietnam decades after the war is over. Their mission is to find the remains of their beloved squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman, perfectly cast), as well as the giant box of gold bars that they buried after finding it in a crashed CIA plane.

Lee jumps from the present to the war throughout the film, the ‘60s scenes all shot in a boxy aspect ratio, like the characters are seeing their memories reflected in an old TV movie about heroic GIs. It’s a technique that is both amusing and oddly stirring, given a touch of strangeness by the fact that the surviving Bloods appear in their present-day forms in the flashbacks. This is initially jarring, but soon its power becomes evident, these characters trapped in endless cycles of violence where the only way out seems to be dying young.

Across the board, the performances are excellent, but Delroy Lindo, in particular, is extraordinary. As Paul, the paranoid, Trump-voting de facto leader of the group, Lindo perfectly plays a mind shattered by trauma, becoming more unhinged and furious as the journey for the gold goes further and further off the rails. Lee’s trademark straight-to-camera soliloquies have never been more Shakespearean than they are here, and Lindo delivers them with mesmerising skill.

In support, Clarke Peters brings his typical easy gravitas as level-headed team medic Otis, while fellow The Wire alum Isaiah Whitlock Jr is both funny and poignant as the hard-partying Melvin. Rounding out the Bloods are the idealistic Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors). Every character brings something unique and vital to the group, making the slow disintegration of the expedition that much more painful as Paul begins to unravel.

As well as having all the usual Spike Lee traits (Trump references, lessons in black history, sobering archive footage of brutality) you could hope for, Da 5 Bloods is, unashamedly, a war movie. There are gory firefights, crashing helicopters, and an astonishingly tense mine field scene that’s the scariest thing I’ve seen on Netflix since Annihilation’s mutant bear. Lee’s commitment to the genre also extends to the very sincere emotional beats, which could very easily tip into tonal incoherence, but are instead beautiful, great testament to Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott’s writing.

Da 5 Bloods is, by a decent measure, less accessible than the bonafide smash hit that was 2018’s BlackkKlansman, but it’s all the better for it. Its idiosyncrasies and outright weirdness make for an experience that might be less fun than its predecessor, but is infinitely more haunting. America’s ceaseless wars of aggression since the end of World War II have caused unspeakable damage to populations around the world, including the US. Lee’s ambitions, to bring this damage home to a modern audience, are incredibly lofty but, with an enormous amount of passion and style, he absolutely achieves them.

Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix.

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