Spike Lee’s back, and he’s getting better with age. The first half of the 2010s found the filmmaker working in a different milieu with Red Hook Summer and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Slightly atmosphere, quieter, lower budgets. Neither were duds, but nor did they have the pop and zing of a Spike Lee joint. Then came Chi-Raq in 2015, and all hell broke loose.
With the release of Da 5 Bloods on Netflix, Lee continues his adeptness of blending narrative, documentary, and history. The story follows four aging Vietnam vets (Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters, and Norm Lewis) returning to the jungle to recover the remains of their squadron leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and a buried crate of gold bars.
That gold was under-the-table payoff money from the U.S. government to the Vietnamese, a form of reparations if you will. Lee uses his four protagonists to underline the economic disparities of the races. As one character says, “We were fighting for the rights of others that we didn’t even have.”
Except for a few nods to Apocalypse Now, little about Da 5 Bloods feels like a cut-and-dry movie about ‘Nam. As a war film, it hews closer to Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One and The Steel Helmet. In all honesty, Da 5 Bloods might be Lee’s most Fuller film: vibrant, reckless, and full of blunt trauma. And it zings. Lindo gives an over-the-top performance that becomes more and more shaded throughout the movie. His character, Paul, suffers not only from the post-traumatic stress of war and combat but of the present-traumatic stress of racial disparity and inequality. He wants so badly to be on “the winning team” that he’ll sell himself to the lowest bidder—an echo of the black Ku Klux Klan member from Fuller’s Shock Corridor.
Clocking in 155 minutes, Da 5 Bloods is long and twisty, but never predictable. There are some groaners—the handful of references to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre feel forced—but like any Lee movie, it moves so fast and contains so much, you never dwell on a misstep long. And the parts that work, Paul’s final address to the camera, stick with you long after the movie ends. Lee’s one of the best in the business, and he’s not resting on his laurels.