Da 5 Bloods is a Spike Lee joint. The story follows the surviving members of Da 5 Bloods, four African American war veterans, who return to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader and a buried fortune. Following in the wake of BlacKkKlansman, you could say Spike Lee was looking to build on the success of his based-on-a-true-story misadventure. The eclectic, politically aware, cool and larger-than-life tale of an African American detective infiltrating a branch of the Ku Klux Klan had it all.
Da 5 Bloods is about a squad of guys, but it’s really the Delroy Lindo show. A recognisable actor, best known for his work in the ’90s, he’s unhinged like Nic Cage as the squad’s second-in-command turned leader, Paul. He’s supported by Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Jonathan Majors as his son. The film doesn’t have as many stars as BlacKkKlansman but does share Paul Walter Hauser in another small supporting role. Other supporting acts worth mentioning include the late Chadwick Boseman in a retrospectively haunting role as Stormin’ Norman, Jean Reno as the slimy Desroche and Mélanie Thierry as Hedy.
Da 5 Bloods takes a similar trip, playing like a blend of Space Cowboys, National Treasure and Apocalypse Now. The reunion of four guys who battled their way through Vietnam who are going to do one more mission echoes the camaraderie and enterprise of Space Cowboys. Then, while there to commemorate the memory of their fallen comrade, the treasure hunt aspect and wild lead performance recall National Treasure. Direct references to Apocalypse Now immerse us in the danger of that hostile environment. Trying to harness the same spirit of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, some scenes serve as a tribute while others verge on lampoon. Either way, Da 5 Bloods integrates itself in the pop culture domain of Nam war movies.
Da 5 Bloods is a patchwork production, playing to its own tune. Operating in the realm of Quentin Tarantino with an equally cool soundtrack, anything goes as long as you can get away with it. Starting in a documentary style to set the scene, Lee lets the tone do a walkabout, giving the film certain freedoms. At some points its laugh-out-loud funny, at others quite touching only for the action to spill into a blood bath… with no sign of a Predator lurking in the shadows. As a political film, it’s more concerned with the messaging than maintaining a steady stream of illusion. Lee keeps you on the hook with his unpredictable and flippant style but there’s a significant amount of fall out.
The war adventure drama uses flashbacks to connect the squad with their leader and spirit guide, Stormin’ Norman. Wise beyond his years and seemingly fearless, he focuses the group’s agenda as they reminisce about and use him as their True North. Released in the days of Trump America and #BlackLivesMatter, there’s a burning passion and intensity beneath the surface of it all. Integrating political factoids, gestures and statements into the dialogue and imagery, Lee isn’t shying away from using Da 5 Bloods as a platform to voice social commentary. Da 5 Bloods is fierce, touching on America’s involvement in Vietnam’s “immoral” war, use of black soldiers, Trump’s electorate and America’s slave history.
It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking and timely joint, compelled by double-edge strengths. The basic plot is intriguing, the kind of over-the-top war comedy that could have ventured into Tropic Thunder territory. However, the documentary edge doesn’t transform into mockumentary, instead serving as a backbone to this travelogue romp with guns. Breaking the fourth wall, flip-flopping past check points and relying on some iffy war flashback make up, this seems like a real holiday movie for Spike Lee. Allowing the characters to stumble their way through the story, it just feels too easy. As Paul’s story, Stormin’ Norman’s ghost often seems more fleshed out than his surviving comrades and Da 5 Bloods often seems bloated with unnecessary characters.
The low hurdles, flabby storytelling and inconsistent tone are largely overcome through razor-sharp political barb wire, strong key performances and an intriguing return-to-Nam veteran war story. There are moments where Lee breaks through the mire, mostly when there are fewer moving parts, but Da 5 Bloods is often swamped and distracted by the peripheral. At almost two-and-a-half hours, this bold and eclectic war adventure drama has enough style and chutzpah to keep it entertaining, but seems to be constantly scratching the surface of what it could have been.
The bottom line: Edgy