‘Da 5 Bloods’ is Spike Lee at his biggest (and bumpiest)

Spike Lee is one of my favorite filmmakers, although he doesn’t make my favorite films. Does that make sense? I love his early work (I needn’t name-drop “Do the Right Thing,”) and 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” was a welcome return to form. But like many aging auteurs, Lee’s more recent films have been wildly hit or miss; even when he hits, it’s more like, “Great, you hit the board!” than a bullseye. That inconsistency, however, has less to do with age and more with his celebrity status. Spike Lee only answers to Spike Lee himself, and while that freedom can be liberating, great filmmakers are rarely so without the discipline of others.

But I love watching Spike Lee joints, even when they’re a strikeout. Here is a man making movies with reckless abandon. I don’t mean to say that his movies are made quickly, or poorly, or without thought, because I mean it as a great compliment. Lee makes movies as if his very life depends on it; he is no less zealous, no less furious, no less urgent at 63 than he was when he first made “She’s Gotta Have It.” The tagline for 2014’s “Chi-Raq” was “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” which might as well be the tagline for all of his films. Messy as his movies may be — “Da 5 Bloods” is sadly no exception — never is a Spike Lee joint not a motherf*cking emergency.

“Da 5 Bloods,” of course, hits Netflix this weekend just as we as a culture are re-examining our relationship with race, amplifying black voices in politics and in art like we never have before. While “Da 5 Bloods” makes only passing reference to police brutality and Black Lives Matter, it is, like most every Spike Lee joint, a film about what it means to be black in America, this time through the prism of the Vietnam War. In a recreation of a North Vietnamese radio broadcast, Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo) pointedly asks black G.I., “Is it fair to serve more than the white Americans who sent you here?” In what history has deemed a long and pointless war, no soldiers were more confused by the bloodshed than African-Americans. Why serve a country that hates you?

Despite classical influences like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Da 5 Bloods” is set mostly in the present. It follows a group of four black Vietnam veterans, returning to the country to find the buried treasure they stored in the jungle some fifty years ago. They’re ostensibly led by the calm and collected Otis (Clarke Peters), but it’s Paul (Delroy Lindo) who anchors the film. Paul is grumpy and confrontational, a loud and proud Trump supporter, and all in all the kind of geezer you avoid conversation with, lest you like walking on eggshells. He’s a complicated character, but Lindo imbues him with power and grace. It’s Oscar-worthy work — if the Oscars even happen — and while the film more or less sidelines the other two veterans, Lindo’s towering performance (almost) makes up for it.

But it’s “Da 5 Bloods,” not da four; who’s missing? That would be Stormin’ Norman, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther” fame. He was the leader of the group long before Otis, but unlike his brothers in arms, Norman never returned from Vietnam. While the rest of the group is back for the gold, it soon becomes clear that Paul is back for Norman, whose death still haunts him even to this day. Norman was “their Martin, their Malcolm,” and in a brilliant touch, Lee chooses to use the same actors in the past as in the present — no deaging, no prosthetics — to underscore how even decades later, the men still carry a piece of Norman with them.

These flashbacks (shot on 16mm film by Bryan Singer’s frequent cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel,) are extremely compelling, as is Boseman in the role, but they don’t make up nearly as much of the film as they should. This creates a weird effect for the viewer, where the movie insists on the consequences of war without ever really showing war itself, and where the characters extol the enduring influence of Norman without us ever really meeting him.

Instead, “Da 5 Bloods” goes in five different directions at once. Like some of Spike Lee’s other recent films, it’s ultimately uneven, with certain scenes extending far beyond their limits and others left scrounging for screen time. The movie also takes a Quentin Tarantino-style detour into violent mayhem that the beginning of the film does little to lay the groundwork for.

But this is a Spike Lee joint, in all which that entails. He makes excellent use of archival footage, just like in “BlacKkKlansman”; he swerves from drama to comedy to back again with absolute ease; and there’s a scene involving a minefield that’s got to be one of the best things he’s ever put to film. “Da 5 Bloods” may run hot and cold, but it’s also the most expansive film Lee has ever made: a multigenerational epic where war never ends, especially if you’re black. Vietnam may be over, but there’s a whole nother war on the homefront. 6/10

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