Running Time: 155 Minutes
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jean Reno, Veronica Ngo, Paul Walter Hauser, Melanie Thierry
Rated: R (Strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language)
Da 5 Bloods debuted on Netflix yesterday and is the latest from director Spike Lee. It tells the story of four black Vietnam War veterans (and one of their sons) who journey back to the country to bring home the remains of their squad leader and $17 million of gold that he helped them hide. Lee and co-writers Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott (that latter of whom co-wrote BlacKkKlansman with Lee) slowly introduce us to each character as they reunite and prepare for their final mission. These character introductions are intercut with flashbacks to their time spent with their beloved squad leader Norman Earl “Stormin’ Norm” Holloway (Chadwick Boseman). In present day, the surviving group includes Paul (Delroy Lindo), a MAGA hat wearing Trump supporter who suffers from severe PTSD and has a strained relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors of The Last Black Man in San Francisco).
Though the film is written as an ensemble piece and all of the characters have memorable moments, this is Lindo’s show. His performance, which includes one of the best breaking of the fourth wall monologues I’ve seen in years, drives home the horrific toll of the Vietnam War more than the film’s gruesome shootouts, deaths by landmines and dangerous wildlife. Make no mistake, Da 5 Bloods is the first major Oscar contender of 2020, and it deserves to be represented in just about every category. It is a stunning experience technically and thematically. If Delroy Lindo is not nominated for Best Actor, then no one should watch the Oscars (in whatever form they occur in this COVID-19 world). He’s that good, and it’s hard to imagine that a better performance will be given this year.
As with all Spike Lee films, there is a lot going on in Da 5 Bloods. It is a commentary on the Vietnam War, a critique of war films, a Black Lives Matter rallying cry, a character study about PTSD, a funny and action-packed adventure film, a discussion about reparations, a father-child drama. Yet only rarely does it feel as if there is too much going on. There are moments when a plot development happens and the script has spent so much time on creating incredible character interactions that the plot feels rushed. This did not in any way make Da 5 Bloods less enjoyable for me, however, as what matters most in a film like this is symbolism. This is a surreal experience in much the same way that Apocalypse Now (which Lee references heavily) is. Scene after scene pays homage to Coppola’s landmark film while telling the story of what comes after “the horror.” Lee’s trademark style fits the characters and stories well. B-roll that pops up in the middle of dialogue, and graphics, such as an arrow pointing at one particular Trump supporter in news footage, are the types of tricks we expect from Lee by now, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a film so effectively use this many aspect ratios (four, to be exact).
Composer Terence Blanchard delivers a score that is the right blend of somber and heroic. I just recently bought his amazing score for BlacKkKlansman on vinyl and I imagine I’ll do the same with this score when it arrives on that format.
One weakness with Da 5 Bloods is Lee’s continued lack of well-rounded female characters. While women are present in this story, which places it well ahead of Dunkirk in terms of female representation in war films, they are mainly plot devices. I know the film is already two and a half hours long, but I could have used a little more backstory and development for the women. I won’t go into spoilers, but there were definitely some compelling subplots to explore further in terms of the few female characters present, and this is the rare instance when I wish the film would have been three hours to give them more screen time.
Da 5 Bloods is a powerful experience and one of Spike Lee’s best films. Like BlacKkKlansman before it, it’s a film demanded by the times. It’s also 100% a cinematic experience, even though you’ll see it in your living room. Watching Da 5 Bloods on a TV does nothing to minimize its impact, and more than any other streaming release thus far, I think it has the potential to change those minds that think direct to streaming releases are nothing more than made for TV movies.