The premise of “Da 5 Bloods” is simple enough. Four Black vets return to Vietnam to search for the remains of their squad leader. That premise soon gets more complicated. Those remains happen to be in the vicinity of $17 million in gold bullion.
What complicates things a lot more is that Spike Lee directed and had a hand in the script. Race, patriotism, personal loyalty, an eye for the main chance, US history, politics (a MAGA cap owned by one of the characters ends up doing triple duty): Yes, this very much makes sense as Lee’s first film since “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), which won him a best adapted screenplay Oscar.
“Da 5 Bloods,” which starts streaming on June 12, is Lee’s Netflix film debut. It’s the service’s most prestigious get since Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” last fall. Like “The Irishman,” it’s long, 155 minutes. Also like “The Irishman,” it has a terrific cast. The four vets are played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Norm Lewis. The squad leader, seen in flashbacks, is Chadwick Boseman. Jonathan Majors, the best thing in last year’s very good “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” plays Lindo’s son. On the ground in Vietnam are Jean Reno and Paul Walter Hauser. Will 2020 see a better ensemble cast?
The movie’s at its best early on, with the four vets teasing each other and bantering as they savor being reunited in a place they had known as a very exotic Saigon and is now a very globalized Ho Chi Minh City. They find references to “the American War” as disorienting as viewers will.
Lee’s interest in the interrelationship of American past and American present goes back at least as far as the 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.” Over the years, he’s forged a style that lets him inject nonfiction into fiction. This can be exciting. This can be distracting. Most often it’s both.
“Da 5 Bloods” is melodrama laced with history. At various points Lee includes news footage of Malcolm, Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, as well as images of Crispus Attucks, Aretha Franklin, and Milton Olive III. Olive, the first Black soldier to win the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, will have his act of heroism repeated here.
It’s a strange thing when a movie is at its most dynamic when it’s at its most didactic. But that’s the case with “Da 5 Bloods.” Lee is consciously juggling a lot of balls: not just fact and fiction, past and present, but also humor, action, family drama, and tragedy. The balls don’t stay in the air. The movie has the bumpety-bump pacing of a mini-series forced into a single overlong episode.
The old men play themselves as soldiers; or at least there isn’t much of an attempt to make them look 50 years younger. Is this a statement about the blending of act and memory? Some Brechtian distancing method? It feels more like carelessness, though not as careless as assuming that four 70ish men could carry the weight of $17 million in gold bars.
A lot of Marvin Gaye is heard to excellent effect on the soundtrack. This does no favors to Terence Blanchard’s ponderous and empty orchestral score. Nor does hearing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” when the vets leave Ho Chi Minh City via boat. That nod to “Apocalypse Now” isn’t the most maladroit movie reference. That comes later, courtesy of the “stinking badges” line from “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”
The best thing about “BlacKkKlansman” was John David Washington’s detached, slightly quizzical performance as that movie’s presiding figure. It was the closest thing to coherence in a film that never really cohered, its Oscar notwithstanding. The closest thing to a presiding figure here is Lindo. Detached he is not. He sinks his teeth so deep into the part he could chew on his own fillings. In fairness, what actor wouldn’t jump at the chance to deliver a soliloquy while hacking at brush with a machete — and in extended close-up?
Much of Lindo’s rage has to do with the death of Norm, the squad leader. All four of the vets revered him. “He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” says Peters’s character. Boseman gives such a forceful yet controlled performance you can see why his men would believe in him like that. It’s a shame there’s not much else in “Da 5 Bloods” to merit such belief.
DA 5 BLOODS
Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Lee. Starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Chadwick Boseman. Streaming on Netflix. 155 minutes. R (language, violence).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.