Spike Lee’s newest joint, Da 5 Bloods, makes perfectly clear its influences when, within the first five minutes, the camera pans out from a giant poster of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam War treatise Apocalypse Now, itself a spin on Joseph Conrad’s high school English lit staple Heart of Darkness. While this isn’t Lee’s first foray into war film territory — 2008’s interminable Miracle at St. Anna takes that prize — it certainly looks and feels more like a big Hollywood production than we are used to from the indie-minded director, a fact that proves to be both its greatest strength and weakness. Lee, as we have come to know him, is on full display as the film opens, presenting an assemblage of newsreel footage of countless tragedies and atrocities that resulted from the war itself — innocent lives taken, the mark it left on the men sent to enact its bloodshed. That Lee centers on those Black American lives deemed most disposable is certainly a powerful starting point, as we catch up with the titular group of soldiers — minus one — returning to present day Vietnam to finally bring back the body of their fallen brother. But as is revealed through flashbacks, the men’s true driving force is a cache of gold bars that was earmarked for the Vietcong but discovered by the group during a search-and-rescue mission. Long ago hidden away, its location has finally been revealed after a recent mudslide. While Lee utilizes this genre-driven plot device to assess the damage the war has inflicted upon these PTSD-addled men, he seems less interested in mining the interior lives of the aged soldiers than delivering a twist-filled actioner about the corrupting power of money on men. Or, something along the lines.
There is no denying the power that comes at film’s end, as Lee links the events within the film to the current Black Lives Matter movement, but one wishes that power was more deeply felt throughout the film.
Things gets a little muddled from here, although as pure entertainment spectacle, this could be Lee’s best film since 2006’s bank heist genre exercise Inside Man. The argument goes that Inside Man ranks as one of Lee’s best, even though it is his least overtly politically charged, thus the least like a true Spike Lee joint. But the thing is, Inside Man indeed has explosive subtext if you choose to look beyond its superficial trappings, and the subtlety is refreshing. Da 5 Bloods, on the other hand, is pure frothing Lee fervor in the first and final ten minutes, but the considerable length in between these bookends feels rather empty. The actors are forced to do most of the heavy lifting, none more so than Delroy Lindo, assigned the ostensible Colonel Kurtz role and taking the opportunity to chew every bit of manageable scenery in response. His performance is by turns brilliant, embarrassing and maddening. By comparison, Clarke Peters is far more successful in his subdued turn and walks off with the film effortlessly. But here’s the thing: we don’t come to a Spike Lee film looking for subtlety. The bigger, the bolder, the brasher — while, not always necessarily better, is, with Lee, far more interesting. His free-wheeling, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attitude is in short supply here, and that’s a problem when considering that this is still an overstuffed production at 156 minutes, with several completely pointless subplots, including an illegitimate child fathered during the war, some standard-issue war film daddy issues, and a wealthy French do-gooder (Melanie Thierry) who has come to Vietnam to sweep the jungles for land mines. (Thierry is godawful, by the way, although this could be the single worst-written female role in a Lee film since Mila Jovovich’s turn as a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold in 1998’s He Got Game.) There is no denying the power that comes at film’s end, as Lee links the events within the film to the current Black Lives Matter movement, but one wishes that power was more deeply felt throughout the film. Da 5 Bloods is a mixed bag, a thrilling genre adventure that aspires to social commentary but doesn’t seem to understand how to do it consistently or meaningfully, leaving it stranded in a kind of unfortunate no man’s land.
You can currently stream Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods on Netflix.