Get on the Bus meets Rambo in Spike Lee’s Vietnam set geriatric action flick Da 5 Bloods. The title refers to five African-American men who served alongside each other during the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese characters they meet along the way here call it, “The American War.” Inspirational squad leader ‘Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) perished in combat in 1971, but his legacy lives on in the hearts of the surviving quartet - Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) - who know that without his leadership and guidance, they may not have made it out of the jungle alive.
Now in the winter of their lives, the remaining 4 Bloods return to Vietnam, along with Paul’s uninvited and somewhat estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), to complete two unresolved missions. They hope to retrieve Norman’s remains and return them to the US for a funeral with full military honors. They also plan to dig up a crate filled with gold bullion. They locate both, but find things complicated by the arrival of a group of young landmine activists (played by Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen) and some locals determined to keep the gold in their country.
There are two movie genres that have become reductively associated with an aging male audience - one is the western, the other is the war movie. Da 5 Bloods borrows elements from both, and in both the advanced age of its male protagonists and its leisurely pace, it plays like a movie designed to be watched with your father and/or grandfather on a Sunday afternoon. Indeed, it’s most involving when we’re simply hanging out with its elderly heroes as they loaf through the foliage, bickering with one another and reminiscing about times past. There’s a platonic romance between these men of the sort you find in the westerns of Ford and Hawks, which makes it all the more impactful when gold fever leads to the inevitable fracturing of the group.
The designation of the quartet of screenwriters - Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee - suggests that the initial script was penned by Bilson and De Meo, with Lee and his Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman collaborator Willmott giving it a rewrite. In its more genre-flavored sequences, Da 5 Bloods plays like a relic of the ‘80s, with the sort of simplistic storytelling that dogged that decade, during which Bilson and De Meo penned scripts for such video store faves as Trancers and Zone Troopers. Flashbacks to the war are accompanied by a Terrence Blanchard score that imitates Jerry Goldsmith’s Rambo soundtrack. Lee is clearly having fun with a genre while pastiching it at the same time, but the decision not to replace his aging stars with younger actors or employ CG de-aging makes the tone of such flashbacks confusing. Seeing Lindo, Peters and others run around in combat suggests that the flashbacks are meant to represent the old men’s memories, but why are they presented in such a bombastic, Chuck Norris on coke manner?
Elsewhere, Da 5 Bloods presents similar, if more intriguing dichotomies. The four vets may recognise they fought in an immoral war, yet they’re still proud to have served. Paul, who sports a MAGA hat throughout, is as hardline an unquestioning defender of his flag as the psychologically damaged vet played by a ferocious Rod Steiger in the 1980 post-war drama Wolf Lake. Much like S. Craig Zahler, Lee puts a protagonist front and centre whom most of us will find philosophically offputting, but as the film progresses, and even as his actions become as awful as his rhetoric, we can’t help but get behind him. Despite the title, Da 5 Bloods is practically a one-man show, with the rest of the men taking a backseat to Lindo’s Paul. Thankfully it’s a career best turn from Lindo - you can’t take your eyes off him, and the more menacing he gets, the more you lean into him. Later on, when a character treats his MAGA cap in a disrespectful manner, you might even find yourself outraged at the treatment of such a usually offensive item. It’s refreshing that in an age when cultural commentators scorn protagonists who don’t reflect good morals, Lee digs his heels in and forces us to get behind a frankly reprehensible man. No white American filmmaker would dare give us a “hero” like Paul (well, maybe Zahler), but Lee recognizes that African-American thinking isn’t monolithic.
At over 150 minutes, Da 5 Bloods follows the pattern of auteur-driven Netflix originals that could use some editorial pruning. That said, I’m not sure what you would cut out here. Its issues aren’t so much pacing as the arm-wrestling match that seems to be constantly playing out between what feels like Bilson and De Meo’s generic Kelly’s Heroes-esque battlefield heist movie and Lee and Willmott’s barber shop with landmines hang out movie. The two strands never quite gel organically, and you might wish a third party had been enlisted to smooth out the narrative more naturally. But there’s enough here to fill out a bloated-bellied Sunday afternoon on the couch with your old man, and veterans of combat may find themselves raising a glass in memory of their own Normans.
Da 5 Bloods - 3 ½ Stars out of 5
Directed by: Spike Lee; Starring: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Mélanie Thierry, Jean Reno, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com