More than a visionary director or bold storyteller, I think of Spike Lee as a teacher. Not the boring high school instructor who drones on with the same prepared lectures year after year, but the passionate educator who puts a fresh perspective on commonly accepted material.
Each film of Lee’s is a re-education in American history. His new Netflix Joint Da 5 Bloods is no exception.
This time, Lee takes aim at the Vietnam War and the inequalities leveled against the black community at a time when the civil rights movement suffered a huge setback in the loss of its defining leader, Martin Luther King Jr. But this isn’t just Lee’s commentary on the war. It’s a full-on war movie with thrilling action sequences and high entertainment value all around.
At the outset, in present day, we meet a group of Vietnam veterans who reunite in the country that made them brothers in arms. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) have returned, at least seemingly, to find the grave of their fallen captain Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). However, we learn through flashback that the squad recovered a case of gold bars in the cabin of a downed plane and buried the treasure throughout the hillside with the intention of digging it up someday.
Aiding them in their decades-long pact are French exporters Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) and Desroche (Jean Reno), who offer to transport their vast fortune out of the country for a cut of the sum.
As a film historian, Lee can’t help but visually reference other well-known Vietnam War pictures from Apocalypse Now to Platoon, although his most clear influence is John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose most famous quote is cleverly reappropriated.
Like that 1948 classic, the story is less about the titular prize and more about the collection of troubled personalities that pursue it. Each of the Bloods certainly have their issues but “troubled” doesn’t quite begin to cover Paul, a cantankerous and paranoid force of nature whose emotional wartime trauma has manifested into PTSD and an estrangement from his son David (Jonathan Majors).
Lindo has played smaller on-screen roles in the past (I’m embarrassed to say his work in Gone in 60 Seconds was previously my main point of reference for him) but he’s never been better than he is here. As the de-facto “leader” of the Bloods, he has a haunted acrimony to his demeanor that is at once repellent yet transfixing. His third-act monologues, delivered direct to camera with the fervor and ferocity of Colonel Kurtz, recall the “mirror” speech given by Edward Norton in Spike Lee’s post-9/11 opus 25th Hour. He delivers a searing and multi-faceted performance that is undoubtedly one of the year’s best.
Lee throws plenty at his audience during the staunch 154-minute runtime. While not every single concept or idea works entirely, there are more than enough successes to score a winning ratio.
Among his better stylistic impulses is the inclusion of numerous Marvin Gaye tracks from dance hit “Got To Give It Up” to a stunning acapella rendition of “What’s Going On” that simply gave me goosebumps in its implementation. On a more surface level, the flashback firefights and present-day conflicts are both shot and edited with just the right amount of visual flourish for maximum impact.
Urgent and unapologetic, Da 5 Bloods is another impressive statement from one of our most vital filmmakers.
New to streaming this weekend
Debuting on demand is You Should Have Left, a psychological horror film starring Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried about a screenwriter who travels with his family to a remote cabin to pen his next script only to suffer a severe case of writer’s block.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is 7500, an action thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a beleaguered airline pilot whose flight from Berlin to Paris is hijacked.
Available on Netflix is Wasp Network, a true story starring Penélope Cruz and Ana de Armas about five Cuban political prisoners who had been imprisoned by the United States since the late 1990s on charges of espionage and murder.