Four men – aging Vietnam vets laden with the scars of their service – return to the land that forged them in search of their fallen commander’s grave and the gold bullion that lies with it.
For a filmmaker like Oliver Stone, this story would be a bombastic tale of frustration and anger boiling to the surface without much humanity under the surface.
Director Spike Lee, however, uses the narrative as a device to educate about the struggles of African American armed forces far from home during the civil rights movement and how racial identity and politics affected a generation of servicemen.
The film, “Da 5 Bloods,” finds Lee pulling from all the corners of his mind, grabbing subtle and overt cinematic homages to “Apocalypse Now” or the philosophical diatribes of Richard Linklater films and interspersing them with news footage that recontextualizes fictional events.
Though part of an ensemble piece in practice, Delroy Lindo shines above the rest with a career-best performance as Paul, whose grief and post-traumatic stress rip at him from the seams as he tries to maintain an outward strength and resolve through thinly veiled contempt that borders on outright hatred.
Lindo is able to masterfully fill Paul with an anguish that comes to define his soul and the choices that he makes, evoking shades of Colonel Kurtz with as perfectly conflicted a portrayal of PTSD that has been on screen in years.
Following up on his incredible turn in the independent drama “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Jonathan Majors delivers a brilliantly understated performance as Paul’s son, David, taking the forefront when needed to go toe-to-toe with a magnetic Lindo and almost fading into the background to allow the four surviving members of the unit to have their moments independent of the current timeline.
Broadway veteran Norm Lewis as well as “The Wire” stars Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. give the core cast a dynamic energy and team with Lindo to create an invaluable, genuine bond that feels authentic to those forged in combat.
Chadwick Boseman offers stern charisma in a small supporting turn as “Stormin’ Norman” during flashback sequences, commanding the screen with his presence in a way that evokes Malcolm X in his physicality and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his words.
Lee opts to have the four surviving Bloods be played by the same actor in multiple eras without the de-aging process that plagued last year’s “The Irishman,” which does not hinder the flashback sequences as much as might be expected, although the age difference between Boseman and his fellow actors does feel wider upon closer inspection.
Subtle when he wants to be and demonstrative when he feels he has to be to make his point, Lee commands “Da 5 Bloods” with a deft hand behind the director’s chair and a firm grip in the edit bay.
“Da 5 Bloods” has the auteur’s signature ambivalence to audience reaction, morphing the visual style and pacing of his film as he sees fits with little regard to how the viewer will follow the action. Historical footage/stills are intercut within scenes as they are referenced to accent the narrative, inform the viewer and, at times, jolt them out of their relative comfort as a third-party observer.
Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel use a variety of aspect ratios to differentiate timelines in the film.
Present day has a thin, wide cinemascope to reflect both modern filmmaking and take in more of Vietnamese city and jungle landscapes. This works in perfect opposition to the faded, square visuals of flashbacks to “the American War” as it is referenced in the film, where a newsreel style gives a sense of distance and observation while keeping viewers engaged in the moment.
The film’s tremendous and sweeping musical score from Terence Blanchard is paired with poignant and pointed selections from the discography of Marvin Gaye. Lee infuses “Da 5 Bloods” with Gaye’s harmonies to challenge and set the mood of the film – foreshadowing events with the seductive “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” opening the film and an acapella rendition of “What’s Going On” magically priming the audience for the concluding final act.
“Da 5 Bloods” may not have the universal support come awards season that Lee’s previous feature, “BlacKkKlansman,” had on its way to six Oscar nominations including a win for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film’s eccentricities and early summer release may doom a wide campaign, but Lindo rightly should be in the conversation for an individual acting nod with his career-best performance.
It should come as no surprise that Lee struggled to gain traction with studios to make his follow-up to the financially successful “BlacKkKlansman” more avantgarde than his commercial successes and Netflix is ideal for the instant rewatchability of a film that’s in dire need of multiple viewings to fully understand Lee’s point of view.
Cinematically complex and audacious in how it challenges and sparks conversation in its audiences, “Da 5 Bloods” sees a true auteur make a film that’s incredibly timely amid current events and one worth checking out on the streaming service.