It seems like almost all of Spike Lee’s prescient works have arrived at the exact right time and Da 5 Bloods, his latest collaboration with Netflix, is no different. The filmmaker’s new drama takes its examination of the place of Black people in America into the Heart of Darkness, literally, telling the story of a group of Vietnam veterans who return to the country decades later to recover their fallen fellow soldier’s remains. Things aren’t as they appear, though, as they’re also back to recover a stolen buried treasure that they stashed all those years ago. But each of the Bloods has an underlying reason for wanting to return to the jungle, as well, and their own attitudes and feelings play a part in getting back home with their treasure.
Like so many of Lee's other works, Da 5 Bloods is partially a history lesson. Rather than being a lecture like some might perceive them, these key elements of reality are baked into the DNA of the fictional narrative. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the war, anti-war speeches by Bobby Seale, and photos of the gruesome carnage that took place in Vietnam loom large over the film’s world because these events are major staples for its characters. These characters might not be based on real people or a real event, but everything that happened around them is real. This lends credence both to the larger themes and in how those moments in the past shaped the men living now, just like the war itself.
Lee regulars Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. lead the film along with Norm Lewis as the titular Bloods, all delivering performances that feel lived in but still fresh. You know men like this, the kind that will argue at the table until they’re red in the face but carry each other's burdens when they need them. They’re joined in flashback sequences by Chadwick Boseman as their fallen squad leader, “Stormin’ Norman,” who brings a powerful gravitas to the role. It’s no coincidence that this figure they all admired and whose memory is beloved by the group is played by someone so publicly admired for playing a Marvel superhero.
As he’s done in previous films, Lee imposes aspect ratio changes throughout the movie to signify differences in time and to emphasize the imperfection of memory. The present-day scenes are shown in wide 2.39 :1 ratio, offering an expanded view of the world from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Sequences in the past are done in the standard 4:3, with moments from the conflict in Vietnam stylized to look like the cheap post-Vietnam action movies that blossomed in the '70s and '80s (called out by the characters in the scenes prior for being so outlandish). It’s a stylistic choice by Lee that feels out of place in the moment but works perfectly when the entire scope of the piece is accounted for. This is no more clear than the moments of explosive action and tension that happen in the present day, which are conducted with precision by Lee and depict the violence with all of the weight that it can carry.
There are moments where Da 5 Bloods stumbles, however, where beats in the story occur as convenient plot points and act as stepping stones disrupting the natural flow of the narrative. Though the entire movie is framed around the finding of this buried treasure, the actual discovery plays like a script beat that was written “because it needed to happen.” It’s handled lazily, but also quickly is overshadowed by everything it leads into. Da 5 Bloods has a mostly solid script in that way, but some moments don’t ring the same way as others.
Da 5 Bloods has a powerful message that, sadly, is as relevant now as it was 50 years ago. The film rightfully shows the casualties and ripple effects of American imperialism across not only racial lines, but global ramifications. There’s also its underlying message about how even when you get your hands dirty to secure an opportunity, a guy in a business suit can try and take it because that’s how the world works.
Spike Lee remains the master of mixing his favorite things from music, film, and life in general to create a cohesive narrative. Lee’s sense of humor walks on a razor’s edge, but for those that can see the world through his lens, it will play like gangbusters. Though featuring a lengthy runtime, clocking in at over two and a half hours, Da 5 Bloods keeps itself together with a speed that manages to feel relentless while also fixating on the important details. Like all of Spike's movies, it tends to play like a buffet with a lot of flavors, but he knows where the main course dishes are being served.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Da 5 Bloods will stream exclusively on Netflix on Friday, June 12.