American ci-ne-mah has become so safe that Spike Lee’s steadfast lapses in taste and coherence look instead like examples of subversion; but the notion of “taste” in film, especially in 2020, is suspect anyway; and his penchant for, to take two examples, changing film stocks and for pointillist breaking of the fourth wall amounts to a kind of coherence whose purpose is dislocation. In Da 5 Bloods, Paul (Delroy Lindo), sanded down by the heat of the Vietnamese jungle, the blood he’s spilled, and a greed to which he thinks he is entitled, decides to break from his mates. As he lunges through the foliage before it swallows him, the camera dollies backward, coldly noting the shot-up corpse in the foreground while the receding Paul shouts, laughs, weeps, and coughs bits of the 23rd Psalm.
It’s a breathtaking sequence, set up with economy, and I can’t think of another filmmaker who would conceive and get away with it. Rewritten extensively by Lee and Kevin Willmot from a script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, Da 5 Bloods depicts the adventures — no other word but this quaint noun will do — of four vets in the country where they fought a half century ago as they hunt for the remains of squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman in flashback) and the gold bullion that the American government intended as payment to locals for services rendered against the Vietcong. Besides the energy with which he regards The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949) and Apocalypse Now (1979) as palimpsests, Lee also takes great pleasure in the interaction of middle-aged black men: the decades of inside jokes and ribbing, the secrets. It’s also a film that revels in the moral implications of violence in a manner rarely seen since the death of Sam Peckinaph. Da 5 Bloods is a film of the present because it confronts viewers with its past.
One of those totems is Marvin Gaye, whose falsetto — the yearning of a trouble man — functions as non-diegetic counterpoint. The opening montage of key moments in the 1960s set to “Inner City Blues,” for example, builds to Lee’s introduction of Paul’s bloods: the weary Otis (Clarke Peters), emotional Eddie (Norm Lewis), and profane Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Hitting the Ho Chi Minh City bar circuit, the four get treated by the Vietnamese as returning heroes; there are always free drinks and women available. Yet Paul’s MAGA hat strikes a discordant note: he admits to voting for Donald Trump — a minority of a minority — because he’s goddamn sick of broken promises. Thanks to Lindo’s ferocious turn as Paul, a man whose resentments have turned his empathy into ash and ruin, the audience understands why he and his son David (a graceful Jonathan Majors, who should consider spearheading an Usher biopic) are estranged. If they don’t understand, the script brings him to the jungles too in one of its more predictable quirks — will they reconcile?
A better question: does it matter? The film peaks when the four bloods plus five find Norm’s remains and the gold, after which Vietnam reminds them more than a million of its people perished for the sake of an American foreign policy obsession with falling dominoes. They stumble into a minefield A French landmine removing group bump into them, realize what they’re up to; Paul, transforming into Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs, holds them captive, to the dismay of David, who had earlier in the film begun a flirtation with one of its members Hedy (Mélanie Thierry, stranded with the script’s most shopworn dialogue and by Lee’s chronic disinterest in women). These actions precipitate the breakdown of the bloods’ camaraderie. A lot of blood is shed, choreographed so that every crimson spray against foliage glistens.
A congeries of influences and outright borrowings held together by Lee’s commitment to his own kind of temporal reality, Da 5 Bloods uses several decades worth of cinematic detritus to illustrate the futility of being a black man in these United States. To Lee, film grammar doesn’t explicate reality; his restlessness exposes the dangers of a complacency often confused for reality. Exploding firecrackers act as sound bridges to flashbacks to 1968 in which choppers glide across the jungles to the accompaniment of, what else, The Ride of the Valkyries. A North Vietnamese radio broadcaster, Hanoi Hannah (played by Veronica Ngo), relays the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death in a jocular manner as a species of psychological warfare. In these scenes the dead “Stormin’ Norman” is transmogrified into a American whose ideals could not bear American warmaking villainy and was spared Paul’s fate, condemned to gnawing on the fag ends of his sense of betrayal. Lee visualizes the idea by lavishing Lindo with one of his breaking-the-fourth-wall close-ups; Paul sounds like a combination of Edward Norton’s monologue from The 25th Hour and Marlon Brando’s ramblings as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (minutes earlier an a cappella version of Gaye’s “What’s Going On” fails to break the hothouse tension).
In his booklength study of A Tribe Called Quest, Hanif Abdurraqib wrote about jazz as a “genre of myths: of fantasy and dreaming, of drumming on whatever you must and making noise in any way you can, before the ability to make noise is taken from you.” Da 5 Bloods is a symphony of noise: played by The Wire alumni Lewis and Whitlock, the latter throwing a sop to viewers by voicing the most famous utterance by his cheerfully venal Clay Davis; by a script too hortatory by half but replete with pungencies anyway, like Melvin sputtering “Just put the gold on Craig’s List!” after it’s suggested they split their plunder with the anti-miners; by Spike Lee himself, who in 2018’s Blackkklansman relied on contemporaneity to light the fire beneath a familiar story but here has material commensurate with his gifts as mythmaker (2015’s Chi-Raq came awfully close to succeeding). Marilynne Robinson defines myth rather elegantly as “narrative that delivers a kind of truth by non-literal means.” Frustrating and alive, Da 5 Bloods is as real as non-literal gets.