[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Da 5 Bloods.]
With Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods, filmmaker Spike Lee simultaneously subverts our expectations and honors the tropes of two different genres: The war movie and the heist thriller. In doing so — like Lee did with 2006’s Inside Man — the Oscar-winning writer-director further proves why he must rank among the best and most effective action movie filmmakers working today.
Da 5 Bloods started its life as a 2013 spec script titled The Last Tour, written by The Rocketeer scribes Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (and featuring a white cast). The spec had a very commercial “elevator pitch”: It’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets Apocalypse Now. The hook alone is easy to see why any filmmaker would be attracted to the project; it could be a slick, Vietnam-set Three Kings in the Michael Bay mold. Thankfully, that’s not what we got. Lee elevated the material by injecting it with a strong dose of relevant social and racial commentary which not only enhances the more action-y elements of the plot, but raises the emotional stakes therein given that audiences have never seen an action movie like this before.
Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott (BlacKkKlansman) explore a side of the infamous conflict few films ever have, that of Black soldiers who fought a messy and senseless war they didn’t start. And when it was finished, they came home and were vilified for it. This painful experience unfolds in both the present and in flashback for vets Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) as they must travel back to their old battlefields in Southeast Asia to find the body of their fallen squad leader: Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The vets’ adventure is both a decades-old rescue mission and a treasure hunt: They also want to recover a cache of gold bricks the CIA intended to use to bribe Vietnamese rebels in the ‘70s. The closer they get to the gold, the faster the past they buried threatens to surface and spark division among them.
Lee grounds his compelling (if, at times, meandering) two-and-a-half hour emotional epic on the backs of complex characters; honoring those who fight wars so we don’t have to and exploring the corrosive psychological toll this sacrifice often takes. By spending significant time on character development, Da 5 Bloods makes it clear even though these vets are revisiting the site of this long-finished war, the war isn’t quite done with them.
From Paul to Melvin, this group is comprised of different personalities, but all of them are largely governed by similar moral compasses. Each man knows first-hand how the lines between right and wrong are constantly blurred by the fog of war and it’s up to them to sort it all out. Unfortunately, Paul has some demons. And his demons have demons. And they’ve brought their friends.
Soon, all are packed into a boat up-river, Apocalypse Now-style. Only instead of taking on a rogue Col. Kurtz-like figure, the former soldiers must confront their shell-shocked pasts which have informed so much of their present. Their motives to recover both the gold, and the fallen comrade who once held this slowly-unraveling group together, prove just as unsettling and fatal as any firefight or explosion ever could. Which means when the shooting does start, its impact is all the more powerful. We, in turn, are more invested in the action-y manifestation of those conflicts because Lee has invested them with characters we laugh with but never at. People we can empathize with — even when one of them, Paul, is a lost, MAGA-supporting vet.
All of this table-setting pays off in the film’s first major action sequence: A flashback to a skirmish where the soldiers discovered a downed plane full of CIA gold. The anamorphic aspect ratio quickly shifts into 16mm as a military chopper glides into view seemingly all in one, uninterrupted take. Our soldiers, led by Norman, are quickly under fire. The exchange of bullets — with a realistic sound design à la Michael Mann’s gritty downtown L.A. shootout in Heat — pops with high tension and verisimilitude. When the chopper crashes and the soldiers put boots on the ground, Lee’s camera chases after them like a documentary crew. The grainy 16mm footage enhances this “in-the-trenches” feel, mimicking the vintage newsreel footage that came out of the real Vietnam War. Lee puts us in the middle of “The Shit,” either next to or right behind these soldiers, because any other vantage point would be a disservice to both the characters and all of their historical counterparts. By pinning us in with them in this firefight, we are never ahead of the story — which means we are always always at the edge of our seats. Lee’s “intimate epic” approach ensures that the taut action and tension therein takes place at “human height.” That way, every small victory these characters earn or major setback they suffer feels like one of our own.
This character-first take on action filmmaking, which mixes the best parts of Sierra Madre with the slow-burn intensity of Apocalypse Now, is a refreshing and almost miraculous one given the current state of Hollywood action films. Most modern entries in this genre are expensive, competently-executed collections of pre-viz’d set pieces. Or, they’re a series of feature-length trailer moments with little surprises and even less emotional weight; movies which dive deep into intricate fight scenes, but leave only enough room for surface-level characterizations. (See Netflix’s other major action release of 2020, Extraction).
The screen time Lee spends exploring these characters’ inner lives and their interpersonal dynamics reaches a fever pitch during the gripping minefield sequence. When Eddie starts back-pedaling away from his crew, and loudly voicing to them his concerns about their ill-gotten gains, we know something bad is going to happen. What we don’t anticipate is how quickly things will go from bad to worse. Eddie unwittingly blows himself up with one mine, as Paul’s estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors), accidentally steps on another. If David moves an inch, he ends up like Eddie. So David parks himself in fear, which is made all the more palpable with Lee’s hand-held camera. It shakily covers the scene, moving between him, Paul, and the other vets as they improvise a plan to save David.
Throughout the film, Paul and his son’s relationship is a broken one. Despite that, David looks up to his father, and the look on his face when he steps on that mine is one of “I’ve let my father down.” Lee capitalizes on their strained relationship to fuel the scene’s white-knuckle tension. An event that could literally destroy their already-damaged relationship oddly brings them closer together. It’s only when David stares down what could be the final moments of his life does Paul realize how much of his he has wasted by being at war with his son.
Moreover, the film’s theme of family — both the ones you’re born into and those you find — is further dramatized here as it takes all of the surviving Bloods to join forces in a last-ditch effort to help Paul save David. All of Lee and Willmott’s character work thus far collapses into one frame here, as the movie’s operational theme reveals itself: The only way out or through this kind of hell is together. And if we lose? That’s okay, because we’ll do that together, too.
Unfortunately, our vets struggle to master this theme — even as we rocket to the climatic third act showdown. Like all great third acts in action movies, Da 5 Bloods’ occurs largely in one confined location — temple ruins — as a rambling Paul ventures off into the jungle. (It’s important to note that Paul does so less like a mad man, and more like a man mad at how much he hates what he has become.)
During the third act climax, the soldiers’ past clings to their present like a disease. The final battle serves as a cure of sorts, as their plight is put through a lens of loyalty and sacrifice. It’s during this sequence Da 5 Bloods most resembles the traditional war movies it has spent most of its run time subverting. It hits the beats audiences expect, but in ways that are pleasantly unexpected. Lee stages mini spheres of action as this divided unit comes together for one last mission; not to save U.S. interests in ‘Nam, but rather each other. The bond that no bayonet could pierce or bullet could shatter 40 years ago quickly, violently, splinters — thanks to Desroche (Jean Reno), a French businessman who double-crosses the unit to get his hands on the gold. It’s Otis and Melvin versus Desroche’s men in a fierce firefight that intercuts with Paul raging to himself as he loses his gold and gets bit by a venomous snake as more of Desroche’s men hunt him. The firefight’s structure clicks into place like safe tumblers. A real-life story set up early on in the film, about Milton Olive III — a Black soldier who threw himself on a Viet Cong fighter’s grenade to save his unit — pays off when Melvin does the same to save Otis. And it’s David, a son caught in the frayed shadow of his father, who kills Desroche. All of this done without showy slow-mo or overly-dramatic music cues. Melvin’s sacrifice is shot very matter-of-fact, but no less impactful.
Contrast this with Paul’s fate, where Lee employs his signature style of having characters break the fourth wall. As Paul addresses the camera, his sanity spills out of him in a feverish rage. His guilt and self-hate, compromised by the snake venom in his veins, leads to a vision of Norman. Here, the movie flashes back to where Paul accidentally shot and killed Norman while taking out a member of the VC during an ambush. Paul took the life of the one man who gave him purpose. It was a life Paul lied about taking, even though it was an accident; the guilt and shame were too much to admit.
But Norman gives Paul what he can’t: Forgiveness. It comes just in time, as the men hunting Paul force him to dig his own grave before gunning him down at point-blank range. It’s a tragic but earned ending for the character, a violent beat that a lesser director would have milked for faux pathos or with sweeping, Bay-esque camera moves. Instead, Lee doesn’t glorify the kill but rather lets it play naturally. Matter of fact. We know there is no version of this where Paul walks out of here alive, he’s gone too far and lost too much. But Paul gets to leave with something worth more than the gold he thought would make up for the cost of all his broken parts. He leaves knowing that his friend, or the version of him that his delirious psyche manifested, was able to grant him the peace in death that eluded him in life.
When we first meet these soldiers, we see that their union is built upon a shared trauma. It’s as if each had an IED go off in their past during their tours together. By the end of their journey, we painfully realize why it has taken more than 40 years for the shrapnel to finally catch up to them.
What started out as a spec centered on white vets seeking fortune and glory in a country which afforded them neither was turned, by Lee, into a passionate and profound story of Black soldiers whose stories and sacrifices are too often overlooked. It just so happens to unfold within the structure of heist and war movies. The end result illustrates Lee’s effortless skillset and ability to service the conventions of the genre while simultaneously reinventing them. Unlike most action films, Lee’s handling of the genre stays with you long after the end credits on Da 5 Bloods roll.
For more on Da 5 Bloods, check out our interview with the film’s composer Terence Blanchard.