War is a drug that doesn’t leave the system. For some, the atrocities of the Vietnam War never washed away, a stain that even decades couldn’t strip away. You could say the mental hurdles of war are more persistent than the physical perils placed on a human being. For African Americans in Vietnam, it was an entirely different battle, one that even friendship and a brotherhood couldn’t vanquish.
Spike Lee’s new film, “Da 5 Bloods,” may end up being his most essential viewing-and this is coming from a director who has given the world potent masterpieces in “Malcolm X,” “Do The Right Thing,” and 2018’s Oscar-winning “BlackKklansman.” In this film, he tackles with full force the earthquake that is ripping the ground beneath us to shreds at the moment: the racial wars that are fought by land and sea. The inequality that attached itself to America’s most infamous war: Vietnam.
At the center of his tale are five men: Paul (Delroy Lino), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors). The elder four statesmen are Vietnam vets and they are going back to the war-torn country to look for the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman)-as well as a possible hidden treasure.
They make deals with shady businessmen like Desroche (Jean Reno) and hire a guide in Vinh Tran (Johnny Nguyen), accepting the dangers of their mission. This is modern day Vietnam, which isn’t exactly a place Americans need to rumbling around the woods in for treasure. But what if they find out that the worst enemy out there in the scene of the crime is themselves, or more clearly, their past and insecurities? Are they five bloods attached at the heart, or are they five souls cast apart?
Lee’s film is both visceral and powerful, getting to the heart of the tale in no time, taking us back to Vietnam, where the five soldiers had been dispatched to investigate a crashed helicopter. What transpires there is the fuel for the current day tale, with the older men going back to where they were broken in ways forever. The troubled and gruesome Vietnam War has been a treasure chest itself for filmmakers for decades, but Lee approaches it at a different angle, attacking it from the point of view of the African Americans who were thrown into that vicious battle on the front lines. Imagine being on the side of the USA but really not feeling that protected on foreign soil?
In order for a film to punch this hard, you need a stellar cast and “Da 5 Bloods” has that in spades. The film deserves Oscar attention in many categories, but chief among them is Lindo. He creates a vessel of self-torment and impassioned rage inside Paul that reverberates throughout the whole film. He’s the one who was most attached to Boseman’s Stormin’ Norman. He’s the soul harboring the most secrets and anguish about a war that beat him to his knees and hasn’t stopped punching.
Lindo has given amazing performances before, but this role is something else. He sets the screen on fire in the second half of the film, where Lee’s tale takes a turn down a dark road. In a scene that is equal parts “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” Lindo’s Paul speaks directly into the camera about the atrocities that war brings to the human mind. It’s a tour de force if there ever was one.
This is the first feature film that Whitlock Jr. and Peters, a pair of esteemed veterans of the HBO acclaimed series “The Wire,” have gotten substantial screen time in-and they are both tremendous. Talk about making it count. The former is known for turning a particular piece of profanity into art, but Whitlock Jr. has an authentic manner of transcribing both joy and hate. Peters, whose Otis is the moral compass of the film, gets some of the better moments. Majors, who shined in last year’s “Last Black Man in San Francisco,” is even better here as Paul’s tortured son, the young man who had to carry a lot of the weight of his dad’s war-torn blues.
Lewis’ Eddie is a face that I didn’t know much about before but will be watching for now. The veteran movie player, of both cast and crew, puts in good work here as a guy trying to make the past right again by taking care of a wrong.
Boseman, known to most young folks as the Black Panther in the Marvel universe, is perfectly cast as the heart and soul of the group, something that they all lost decades ago. The forever young grace and torment in these men’s lives. He’s the secret grenade laying around the final third of this picture, the mystery you’ll spend the first part of the film wondering about. What happened to Norman is the key to most of the film’s impact-and Boseman shows how good of an actor he is-not just a budding movie star-by carrying the weight of that question on his shoulders with lesser screen time than his fellow cast members.
Paul Walter Hauser, Melanie Thierry, and “BlackKklansman” scene-stealer Jasper Paakkonen shine in smaller roles that are still vital to the outcome.
Believe me when I tell you that “Da 5 Bloods” has devastating action sequences and lots of intense thrills, but it’s meaningful in ways that stretch beyond the screen. I am not sure if Lee altered some of the film in light of certain timely events, but whatever he did turned out to be a powerful measure of a filmmaker. Lee uses the sorrow and chaos of the Vietnam War to tell a story about how the world is still fractured and healing 45+ years later. Lee has always been about making statements with his film and this one packs a punch.
With a running time of over two and a half hours, I wanted more time with these characters when the credits rolled. I wanted to see where their lives took them after such a life-changing event. The best films are the ones that buy up real estate in your soul while entertaining you and informing you. Also, ones that outfit their entire soundtrack in Marvin Gaye tunes. His lyrics permeate through the tale at every turn and twist.
Here’s the thing. Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” moved me. Genuinely pushed me around for nearly three hours. It’s a cinematic opus if there ever was one and certainly something to chew on for a few days. Between Lindo’s mesmerizing performance and the timely weight of this film, I predict “Da 5 Bloods” will lay into you with both feet. After immersing you in his world, Lee hits you over the head about halfway in, when things get very real.
What a film. What a vital film. Go watch it and tell a friend.