If there’s one thing that’s absolutely certain about a project that was developed by Oliver Stone and then given to Spike Lee to rework, it’s that the resulting film is not going to lack for ideas or ambition. Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s newest joint, began life as an original script titled The Last Tour, with a story that followed a group of Vietnam War veterans who return to Asian nation to retrieve a valuable item they left behind decades earlier. Part saga of enduring wartime trauma and part modern gloss on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the script came into Lee’s hands and he and his fellow BlacKkKlansman Oscar winner, Kevin Wilmott, added their own artistic concerns to the piece. The four soldiers stepping in country again became black men, and the film was given the welcome political undercurrent of considering the damaging war from the perspective of men fighting under the flag of a nation fiercely committed to keeping them oppressed.
Lee opens the film with a flurry, presenting a documentary-like assemblage of clips to set the mood, led by Muhammad Ali’s famed quote explaining the way the Viet Cong were less of a threat and offense to him than his own countrymen. The stage, Lee introducing the four veterans, played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They have reunited in Vietnam to locate the remains of their old squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) who was killed in action. That’s the officially sanctioned mission, but they’re also in search of a stash of gold, originally shipped to the country to pay off the Vietnamese, but claimed by the serviceman as a form of reparations. During the war, they’d buried the gold in the jungle only to see the ravages of napalm obscure the countryside enough that they could no longer locate it. Only the unearthing caused by recent mudslides have provided them a new chance at the treasure.
As has been the case at almost every step of his laudable career, Lee’s ambition expanded beyond his ability to fully contain what he’s attempt to do. Da 5 Bloods is lumpy, unwieldy, and at least twenty minutes too long. But it’s also often incredibly assured, with Lee offering regular reminders that there are few current directors in his league when it comes to innovative visual staging that somehow feels like classic narrative filmmaking. There’s even one critical moment when he seems to be deliberately — and expertly — mimicking Steven Spielberg with radiant light and longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard giving it his best John Williams musical emotiveness on the score. In general, Lee balances the heaviness of the material with an almost jubilant playfulness, whether in multiple allusions to other films (including a “badges” hat tip to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and giving Whitlock the chance to deliver one his beloved stretched-out profanities.
Lee also gives Lindo, another regular collaborator, the role of a lifetime. Lindo plays Paul, the veteran whose disillusionment is so pronounced he’s bought into a certain presidential candidate’s cynical pitch “What the hell do you have to lose?” Deeply damaged by his experiences, in the war and after, Paul is clearly succumbing to mental health issues and is largely unable and unwilling to deal with it, a situation most heartrendingly manifested in his relationship with his son (Jonathan Majors), who tags along on the trip. Lindo gets to rage, Lindo gets to portray brutalizing vulnerability, and, because Lee is a fearless director, Lindo gets to monologue right at the camera with tightly controlled madness, like Richard III with soiled MAGA hat. It’s a big swing of a performance, and Lindo connects squarely.
Da 5 Bloods is distinctive. Watch the film with no credits attached and there would be still be no doubt as to who made it. That certainty comes from its flaws as much as its strengths. Lee is a great filmmaker who makes messy films, and the sprawl of their spirit is part of the appeal. If it doesn’t completely cohere, the film is still thrilling and jarringly relevant for this particular moment of citizens taking to the streets, quite literally, to demand justice that is long overdue.