When Spike Lee's hyper-stylized, genre-hopping, and stuffed-to-the-gills Netflix original film Da 5 Bloods ended, and after I'd scooped my brains up off the carpet, I was left with the question "is this movie any good?" It's a big swing at 156 minutes; bold and bloody and rife with characters that are justifiably knotted with paradoxes. It jerks between poignancy, action, comedy, and moral discussions, always in fascinating ways. But does that make it good? Flip though it may sound, nothing with this much Marvin Gaye on the soundtrack can be all bad.
Gaye's 1971 masterpiece "What's Going On," in which the soul singer touches on war, poverty, racism, faith and preservation, is an album-length tone poem that shifts emotions but maintains a steady pulse. These songsserve as a leitmotif for the drama (adventure? escapade?) of four African American Vietnam veterans returning to the Southeast Asian country nearly 50 years later. It seems, at first, like a holiday, then a solemn quest to retrieve the remains of a fallen comrade (Chadwick Boseman, in flashbacks). Soon we realize this is ultimately a quest for (I kid you not) lost gold.
The organizational leader is Otis (Clarke Peters), whose old flame Tiên (Lê Y Lan) is, luckily enough, tied to some underworld figures (Jean Reno as Desroche, pronounced Da Roach) who can help get the money out of the country and into their bank accounts. With Otis is Eddie (Norm Lewis), whose post-Army years brought him wealth in car dealerships, and fun-loving Melvin, played by the always terrific Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (And, yes, he does say "sheeeeeeeeeit" at one point; how could he not?)
Much of the drama, however, centers on Paul (Delroy Lindo), still haunted by combat ghosts and suffering PTSD, a condition that manifests itself in wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat. Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors) joins the four on the journey. They travel up the river with a guide, meet a French-led mine-detonating trio, and the action frequently changes aspect ratios and film stocks to journey into the past.
As the five men set out to put an end to past traumas, there is a loose, hangin'-out vibe. This quickly devolves into chaos, violence (some of it really gruesome), and direct quotes from film classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Try not to settle into Da 5 Bloods with too many expectations.
As with much of Lee's recent work (Chi-Raq and Blackkklansman both being prime examples), the director is quick to spread out into somewhat stagey tableaux, or drop into a montage of news clips. The scenes can go long and Terence Blanchard's original score is, at times, completely overbearing, and can feel unrelated to the image. I will confess, watching this at home, I wondered if I accidentally opened a window on my laptop that had an auto-play video.
Despite these issues, the performances are where it's at. Lindo, especially, is acting his brains out, and is at times terrifying and heartbreaking. If the rest of this movie weren't so, well, I hate to use the word "strange," so let's say "particular," he'd be in the running for an Academy Award. (If, that is, we're still doing those again for this year.)
Unknown to Lee and co-writers Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson, and Paul DeMeo was just how top-of-mind some of these topics would be to the national dialogue right now. Indeed, the treasure hunt aspect of the story is positioned as reparations to the African American community. The contradiction of Black men fighting for an American foreign war when there is institutional racism back home is not ignored. Muhammad Ali's famous quote about the North Vietnamese never calling him the N-word is the first line in the movie.
Much like the Vietnam War's horrors never left the soldiers (and civilians), despite time marching on, the same is obviously true about the underlying racial issues in American society. Many people have always known this, but others either did not or forgot. Certainly all have been reminded in recent days. For this reason alone — so maybe not just the Marvin Gaye — it's worth checking Da 5 Bloods out.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Da 5 Bloods premieres Friday, June 12 on Netflix.