Few words describe Spike Lee and his body of work more appropriately than “fearless.” Of course, fear isn’t really an option for a 20th-century filmmaker whose oeuvre almost uniformly focuses on the raw struggle, tragedy, triumph and spirit of African-American life. But his latest release, “Da 5 Bloods,” takes this theme to a grand new level, achieving a breadth and an indelibility few straight-to-streaming films ever dare to achieve.
The first five minutes of “Da 5 Bloods” closely mirror the last five of Lee’s last narrative feature, “BlacKkKlansman,” packing just a few of the most harrowing images from the years of the Vietnam War — many focused on the plight of black Americans fighting for civil rights on one side of the world and black foot soldiers on the other — into a tight montage. Fast-forward nearly 60 years, and we meet four of the five titular brothers-in-arms as they reunite in a Saigon hotel in the present day.
It’s as if they never separated: Tight hugs are given, playful jabs exchanged. But the shadow of the fifth Blood, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), looms heavy over the remaining quartet, particularly Paul (Delroy Lindo), whose dreams have been haunted by the late Squad Leader’s ghost ever since he was pronounced KIA. But Paul does his best to swallow his demons, because the Bloods have a job to do.
With the help of a French financier, a local guide and Paul’s not-so-welcome son, David (Jonathan Majors), the four living Bloods plunge into the jungle, hell-bent on finding two things: Stormin’ Norman’s remains and the heap of gold they buried during their service together. But before long, the search party learn that their search is only half the battle; returning to the setting of their generation’s greatest horror may just bring out the worst in them ... and others who live in its shadow.
“Da 5 Bloods” essentially spends the first half of its 154-minute runtime on setup, fleshing out the bond, love, conflicts and scars shared between Paul, Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) as they wind their way deeper into the wilderness. However, the character- and world-building Lee does in the film’s front half proves extraordinarily satisfying in the back, when it goes from a one-last-hurrah buddy-drama to …
… well, I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice it to say, “Da 5 Bloods” achieves the large-scope, character-driven excitement of “Seven Samurai” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to which many modern directors have aspired, though so few have attained it — but it refuses to sacrifice the bare-knuckled sociopolitical potence for which Lee has become so well known. It’s a film with countless themes, packed with questions about brotherhood, manhood, control, isolation, regret, forgiveness and the power of love, all while delivering a constant stream of excitement to keep the viewer tightly locked-in.
No performer — in front of the lens or behind — misses his or her mark in pulling off all things epic and intimate Lee’s story requires. Lindo shines as the PTSD-addled Paul, whose machismo, ego and guilt form a capricious brew of pressure-cooker volatility as he faces the unknown. Majors and Boseman both deliver magnificent secondary turns, while the production crew — particularly cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and Lee’s longtime composer, Terence Blanchard — concocts a grandiose, symphonious vision with a blend of film formats, aspect ratios and instrumental arrangements.
Certainly, some may go into a 2020 Spike Lee production expecting a measure, or perhaps a barrage, of sermonizing. To be sure, Lee doesn’t pull his punches here when it comes to commentary, but few will likely come away feeling as if they had just been preached to. Instead, Lee tackles the racial injustices of both wartime and present-day America with dynamicism, optimism and grace. Of all the aforementioned themes, love comes out on top; when Stormin’ Norman gives a rousing speech to his comrades about the power of well-spent, nonviolent fury in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, we here in 2020 feel as if he is speaking right to us.
Even with theaters closed worldwide, “Da 5 Bloods” is bigger and better than anything we could have hoped for in this dark corridor of history. It will no doubt be lovingly remembered years from now as the movie of the moment.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.