Da 5 Bloods began its life in the early 2010s as an original script called The Last Tour, penned by Danny Bilson & Paul DeMeo (The Rocketeer), about five veterans returning to Vietnam to search for hidden gold. While Oliver Stone flirted with directing that version, it got picked up somewhere in the development pipeline by Lee, who wanted to more specifically reflect the perspectives of black soldiers, and reshaped it (along with co-writer Kevin Wilmott) into the Netflix version.And just as Lee’s equal-parts rousing and chilling BlacKkKlansman two years ago used a narrative framework set in the 1970s to critique 2017 America (it’s not exactly subtle when you cast Alec Baldwin — SNL’s Donald Trump of record — as a KKK grand wizard talking to the camera with presidential music underneath), so too does he spin Da 5 Bloods — which could easily have been a standard issue riff on Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or, if you prefer, The Simpsons’ third season episode “Three Men and a Comic Book”) — into a powerful meditation on race, retribution, and the tainted legacy of American involvement in Vietnam.
By way of a mission statement, the film begins with a newsreel of Muhammad Ali eloquently explaining his refusal to go to war (“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America”) before launching into a montage of archival sounds and images encapsulating the complicated role of African-Americans with regards to the Vietnam War, fighting for their country abroad while their country was often fighting against them.
From there we join four of the five “bloods” promised by the title: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Otis (Clarke Peters). Five decades removed from their original tours, they’ve reunited in Southeast Asia partly to pay tribute to their deceased unit leader, “Stormin’” Norman (seen only in flashbacks as played by Chadwick Boseman) and return with his remains while also hoping to retrieve the shipment of lost CIA gold they had secreted somewhere in the Vietnamese countryside.
Of course, with an airy 2 hour and 34 minute runtime, you know things are substantially more complicated than that, and it’s not long before things start taking turns — both structurally and stylistically. As Lee does so well, he masterfully juxtaposes the high-def here-and-now with archival footage and inserts still images for maximum emotional impact, all the while employing an interesting technique of framing war-era flashbacks in grainy 4:3 as if evoking the only way most Americans experienced the conflict, on their television screens.
Also, instead of casting younger lookalikes and unlike the vogue of using de-aging CGI (a la fellow Netflix flick The Irishman), Lee makes the novel choice of having his modern day actors play their fifty-years-younger selves in the flashbacks. This has the unique effect of showing senior citizens Lindo, Peters, et al, sitting in rapt fascination as they listen to the much younger Boseman, holding forth on black history (“He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” they say at one point), preserved in amber in their memories.
This conceit could easily have been jarring, and while there’s admittedly some momentary dissonance while one adjusts to the stylistic feint, it passes quickly and we are soon immersed in the subjective reality of their memories. The sense that, for them, no time at all has passed. This in turn adds greater weight to the present day storyline, as our various leads reckon with what life has given them in the intervening decades and what may be in store on the other side of this experience.
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While the performances are stellar across the board (including an appearance by the always welcome Jean Reno), the whole thing is held together by an absolutely showpiece performance from Delroy Lindo (someone who carries gravitas in his back pocket, even when appearing in disposable stuff like Romeo Must Die or The One). From the start, Paul proudly invokes his support for President Trump, which offers a window into his view of the world and himself. (“Time we got these freeloading immigrants off our back and build that wall,” he says at one point, inviting gleeful derision from his fellow “Bloods.”)
Eventually Paul is joined in Vietnam by his estranged son David (Jonathan Majors, making another strong mark here after previously impressing in last year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco), who has his own issues with his father he’s attempting to work through even as he tries to help him. What becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses is that there’s more to the gold than we thought, there’s more to Norm’s death than we assumed, and all of it is tied up in Paul’s continuing PTSD.
By film’s end, he’s not necessarily the protagonist, but he’s absolutely the center of gravity. While it’s too easy to invoke Apocalypse Now (which Lee himself does by playing “Ride of the Valkyries” as the Bloods embark on their boat ride), it’s hard not to think Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz when examining Paul’s descent into his own mind the further he delves into the Vietnamese jungle. There are long stretches where Lindo is alone, talking directly to camera, emoting as only he can, and it is truly some of the most transfixing cinema of the last several years.