Around the halfway point of Da 5 Bloods, as the titular Bloods, a group of veterans returning to Vietnam years after the war to collect on a reward and repay a debt to fallen comrade Norman (Chadwick Boseman), there is a shift from interesting but uncomplicated drama to essential viewing. While director Spike Lee up to that point had crafted a nuanced tale of brotherhood, PTSD and the ravanges of war, when the pretense of their ‘mission’ disappears that is when Lee really gets to the core of not just the festering wounds still present in modern day Vietnam but the ones bubbling under the surface within the Bloods themselves, issues regarding family, money and personal politics. While Lee indulges in some popcorn theatrics along the way, it only adds flavour to an already splendid dish.
When Bloods Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Paul (Delroy Lindo) first arrive in the films opening minutes you’d be forgiven for thinking these are just four tourists. All Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts, these four men look like they are on vacation but over the course of an opening act designed to introduce you not just to four men coping with the effects of war in different ways, but a country trying to move past a stain in its history never to be washed away, Lee paints his core cast as heroes in this story, something he intends to strip them off piece by piece.
This isn’t a film about four brothers with an unbreakable bond, this is a film about mending one that has already been broken by time and loss. Betrayal looms large here but this is ultimately a tale of forgiveness, be it sons forgiving fathers, soldiers forgiving former enemies or just one broken man forgiving himself. Lee takes his time making his intentions known, filling his film from everything from grainy flashbacks that mesh American political snapshots with scenes of almost ‘televised’ jungle warfare to quiet moments as the four make their trip down river through places untouched by modernisation, bringing them closer to the Vietnam they know, the hot unrelenting nightmare that Paul can’t awake from.
At times there is so much going on in a single scene that it is impossible to fully grasp what Lee and co-writers Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson & Paul Demeo fully want from their characters, but not only does that create instant replay value but it makes their choices feel like surprises. Paul’s status as a staunch Trump supporter and his PTSD induced paranoia bring out some erratic plot decisions and while in any other film they would seem unbelievable, here it feels like just another element to a person you’ll never truly understand. His choices seem foreign and that’s alright. Lindo embraces these wild tendencies and Shakespearean bouts of madness akin to King Lear, with full blown soliloquies to boot, never seeing his unhinged choices as the monstrous decisions of a man not in control. Much like many others have already stated, it is a tour de force performance that creates an impressive tension throughout.
However, Peters for all his quiet introspection is equally impressive, a straight man driven to uncomfortable choices by loyalty, greed and everything in between. However the star here is Lee. His latest joint hits hard with sudden edits that feel like punches in the gut, even the funny ones. An extended sequence involving an unexploded landmine proves to be his finest moment however, a masterclass in tension, subtle character building and unintentional camaraderie. While some may question the film ending acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement but Lee more than justifies it with a film that admonishes America’s treatment of black veterans and how while the world has changed, some things just seem to be getting worse.
Although Lee relies a little to heavily on forced gun play and the film runs a little long to keep you invested, especially during a middle that gets a little bit lost in befuddling asides and new characters, Da 5 Bloods is explosive cinema both literally and figuratively and the constantly shifting tone and strong performances more than make up for some questionable additions.