If you threw Spike Lee’s filmography into a pot and cooked it down, stirring occasionally such that all of the ingredients are thoroughly intermingled, you’d be left with Da 5 Bloods. Lee’s new Netflix joint is nothing if not ambitious, and at its shakiest it does feel composed of variations on ideas he’s had in previous films. Take the war-never-ends framing device of Miracle at St. Anna, the style-and-substance mentality of BlacKkKlansman, the epic scope of Malcolm X, a pinch of the melancholy soul-searching of 25th Hour, a dash of the motley cast of Get on the Bus, and Spike’s secret sauce, of course, that blunt intrusion of American history into an otherwise routine narrative. The last ingredient is always a tough one to swallow, but in Da 5 Bloods its sourness is even more noticeable. As with the final scene of BlacKkKlansman, the dark American past we’re witnessing is often only a few months old.
Bloods as a melting pot of ideas mostly works in its favor, giving heft to a story in which four black veterans of the Vietnam War return to country to retrieve a cache of gold they’d buried decades ago. The changes brought about in those decades have affected each man differently, particularly Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Otis (Clarke Peters). Paul’s now a MAGA-hat-sporting Republican, and from the jump the group’s return to Vietnam sparks radical thoughts in his volatile soul. Otis is still the picture of collectedness he was in wartime, but he’s obviously wearied by how the American political climate seems to be regressing. Flashbacks to Vietnam center around the fifth Blood, unit leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who unites the crew under the idea that its time for black Americans to collect what they’re owed. With the U.S. government’s eternal refusal to pay out, a few million dollars in gold will do in the meantime.
If there is a throughline in Bloods, it’s that the war is very much still ongoing. The four main characters (rounded out by Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s party-animal Melvin and Norm Lewis’s more refined Eddie) appear the same in flashbacks, still played by their older actors without any de-aging, as if they’ve never left at all. Lee plays effectively with four different aspect ratios, too, and the flashbacks are presented in a boxy 1.33:1 and filmed in 16mm reversal stock. Juxtaposed against the film’s largest ratio (a screen-filling, eye-popping 16:9 widescreen), the flashbacks do feel like old TV footage of the war. In context, it’s an effective way of blurring the lines between history and fiction.
That throughline gets benched a lot, though, and the melting-pot ambition of Da 5 Bloods is also what prevents it from being as critical, on the whole, as the more streamlined BlacKkKlansman. Lee’s always been unafraid to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, and with the possible exception of Do the Right Thing, even his best films still have plenty of fatty parts that a different director would have left on the cutting room floor. He is not a particularly “precise” filmmaker in that regard, but then again neither is the American history Lee feels driven to engage with and reveal. Da 5 Bloods goes in a zillion different directions throughout, and some of these diversions do feel like diversions. They’re never boring, but after 2.5 hours of rapid-fire historical and emotional fallout, some ideas and characters do feel extraneous.
But the best things in Bloods are also some of the best things Lee’s ever caught on film, primarily the character of Paul and the performance of that character from Delroy Lindo. Lee’s best characters are those you least expect — Sam Jackson’s crack-addict Gator in Jungle Fever, or Lee himself as Mars Blackmon in She’s Gotta Have It — and Paul absolutely belongs in their company. Lee’s written black Republicans before, notably in Get on the Bus, but they’ve tended towards the archetypal. Paul is truly unlike any character you’ve seen before, himself a melting pot of greed and guilt and righteousness and arrogance. Bloods is most interesting when it sticks with Paul, and Lindo’s explosive performance is by far the year’s best to date.
The high notes and Lee’s characteristic sense of urgency make his new joint worth it, shagginess notwithstanding. Yes, it could’ve been cut for time. Yes, certain subplots (i.e. one with Paul’s son David) feel weaker than others. I would have liked to have connected with the younger characters more, despite recognizing the stylistic choice to have the older actors play both versions. But I suppose that aspect of Lee’s filmmaking, the obvious consciousness and intentionality behind every decision, is what endears me to Da 5 Bloods even if those decisions aren’t always working in the film’s favor. While Lee’s creativity and boldness have never been in question, the films that bare his heart are undeniably his best. And Da 5 Bloods has a heart, even if its buried somewhere deep in the jungle.