Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods Movie Review
By John Saeger
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is an atypical exploration of the Vietnam War veteran experience. The filmmaker delves into less-traveled aspects of the conflict and its policies. His Netflix film follows a group of African-Americans who return to Southeast Asia to locate the body of a fallen comrade and a trove of riches buried near his remains.
The movie stars an ensemble of Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Army vets returning to present-day Vietnam. Their trip’s nominal purpose is to return the body of “Stormin’ Norman” Holloway to the United States for internment at Arlington National Cemetery. During flashbacks to the war, Holloway is played by Chadwick Boseman while the other actors play their younger selves. These trips to the past reveal how the group left behind a cache of gold bars that they intend to funnel into their bank accounts.
As the film progresses, Lee explores several taboo subjects that are not often presented collectively. The conflict’s controversial nature has been made into countless movies, but Lee’s placement of the black experience of Vietnam into the forefront of a motion picture is a much-needed addition to the Hollywood canon. This is shown through wartime scenes and as the older group wanders through the jungle.
To complement the movie’s primary stories, the director spends a fair amount of time discussing French colonialism’s exploitation of the region and how the war tore families apart (both American and Vietnamese). Lee also explores how the effects of PTSD last beyond battle through a father and son (Lindo and Jonathan Majors). In order to recount these aspects of the war, the director incorporates elements from a pair of venerable films.
Da 5 Bloods is a combination of two classics: John Huston’s Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). The plot’s sampling from Huston’s story comes as the group of men lose their emotional grip during this exotic treasure hunt. Lee’s backdrop of Vietnam maintains its Apocalypse Now vibe through the squad’s journey up a river and the ultimate completion of the tale at a temple.
Overt references that acknowledge the movie’s inspirations come in predictable, yet fun flashes. The group spends time at a Vietnam disco named after Coppola’s 1979 Best Picture Nominee. Their journey is briefly scored by “Ride of the Valkyries,” the same music that memorably placed a stamp on Robert Duvall’s scene-stealing moments in Apocalypse Now. Da 5 Blood’s final nod to the two stories comes through a twist on the legendary “badges” line from Huston’s timeless classic.
Lee makes his own imprint on the amalgamation of the two tales through his own distinct filmmaking style, making the 2020 homage to the past a classic in its own right. The film sheds Vietnam film cliches like CCR in favor of a steady stream of Marvin Gaye. Lee also changes aspect ratios and cameras often enough that it makes watching the film as fresh as the story.
Like the director’s 2018 period film BlacKkKlansman, the alternating facets of Da 5 Bloods have a significant impact on the story’s fluidity. Neither piece is a smooth work and the latter would benefit from a trimmer main story with fewer wrinkles. A more direct story may have given the primary stories and worthy secondary points the proper time to breathe.
In a year where the COVID-19 virus has delayed a significant number of high-level films and altered their release format, Da 5 Bloods is a welcome piece of challenging cinema. The movie likely would play just as well in theaters as it did on Netflix, something that can’t be said for the streaming service’s Best Picture nominees Roma (2018) and The Irishman (2019). The director smartly shrunk the movie’s theatrical qualities to cut down on lost on the small screen. This accessibility gives Spike Lee’s latest a chance to trump the other mixed popular reception of those nominees and be an early contender for an Oscar nod.
About the Author: John Saeger is a music and film writer from Philadelphia. He has written the pop-culture blog Long After Dark, a site dedicated to the arts in the City of Brotherly Love and beyond, since 2017. Twitter Facebook Instagram