Review: Spike Lee joint ‘Da 5 Bloods’ is part treasure hunt, part Vietnam lament

This image released by Netflix shows, from left, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors in a scene from the Spike Lee film “Da 5 Bloods.” (David Lee/Netflix via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Da 5 Bloods'

Spike Lee couldn’t have predicted our current racial unrest when he wrote his new joint.

Oh wait, actually, he did predict it over 30 years ago with “Do the Right Thing” (1989), which is still as relevant as ever, as seen in our WTOP Twitter watch-along last week.

Now, his new Vietnam adventure “Da 5 Bloods” hits Netflix in time for Juneteenth, and while it doesn’t rival Spike’s upper echelon work, it still proves he’s a timely firebrand.

The story follows four aging African American military vets who return to Vietnam to search for the remains of their fallen squad leader (Chadwick Boseman). While there, they also search for the buried treasure of gold bars that they hid together in the jungle.

The cast creates camaraderie with Clarke Peters (“The Wire”) as the calm leader Otis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (“The Wire”) as the fun-loving Melvin, Norm Lewis (“Scandal”) as the insecure Eddie, and Delroy Lindo (“Malcolm X”) as the hothead Paul, who clashes with his Morehouse educated son (Jonathan Majors, “Last Black Man in San Francisco”).

Oddly, Spike chooses to have the old men play themselves in the flashbacks beside the younger Boseman in an intentional case of reverse anachronism. Why would Spike do this? You can make the symbolic argument that it’s the old men seeing themselves in their memories, mentally trapped in the PTSD of war, but the visual is admittedly jarring.

Instead, Spike differentiates timelines with shifting aspect ratios and film stocks, using a 4:3 frame on 16 millimeter film for flashbacks and a 16:9 frame on iPhone for present day. The flashbacks have a dreamlike quality with Boseman backlit in angelic sunlight, showing that the King of Wakanda has achieved divinity in the annals of black cinema.

Spike also flashes documentary-style images of historic black figures, opening with Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, then closing with Martin Luther King Jr. It’s similar to his use of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation” footage in “BlackKklansman” (2018), whose actors appear at contrived moments here.

You’ll also find overt homages to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) as Lindo wanders off like Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) with the line, “Madness! Madness!” and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) as the men visit a nightclub called Apocalypse Now and float down the river to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Ahh, I love the smell of cinephiles in the morning.

Written by “The Rocketeer” alums Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo and rewritten by Spike with “BlackKklansman” scribe Kevin Willmott, the script runs an overlong 2 1/2 hours with several subplot scenes that could have been trimmed. Like Martin Scorsese’s three-hour gangster epic “The Irishman” (2019), Netflix would benefit by reigning in its geniuses.

A tighter pace would allow us to better appreciate the more masterful touches, like Spike’s circling camera obscuring the text of a “Make America Great Again” hat as a black character hugs a man to say, “I forgive you.” It may be heavy handed, but if you thought Spike was all “piss and vinegar,” such moments show a hope for reconciliation.

Such poignant scenes exist throughout as Boseman suggests the Bloods keep the gold as reparations, while a Vietnam radio host asks the black G.I.’s why they’re fighting for an oppressive government that assassinated MLK. Your mind might even be blown by the fact that the Vietnamese call the conflict The American War, not The Vietnam War.

While tons of great films are set during the war (“The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Good Morning, Vietnam”) and others explore the return of those veterans (“Coming Home,” “Born on the Fourth of July”), today’s filmmakers are exploring the dramedy of aging vets, like Richard Linklater in “Last Flag Flying” (2017).

While “Last Flag Flying” and “Da 5 Bloods” certainly aren’t the best work of Linklater and Lee, we’re lucky to have such thoughtful auteurs as our cultural squad leaders in this jungle of society, reminding us that the effects of war live on long after the final shot.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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