Spike Lee has delivered some of the most culturally significant, generationally important and flat-out entertaining movies of the last 30+ years, and he does it again with “Da 5 Bloods,” which in a better world would be packing movie theaters across this country this Friday but will be premiering exclusively on Netflix. Wisely, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has ruled this film will still be eligible for Oscar consideration, and that’s a good thing because it deserves close to a dozen nominations.
Let’s start with the magnificent and searing performance by the veteran actor Delroy Lindo, who has never been better on film and is as good here as he was in maybe his greatest work, onstage in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Lindo plays Paul, a Vietnam veteran who has been adrift ever since returning home from the war. In addition to feeling first reviled and then forgotten by his country, Paul suffered a tragic personal loss, leaving him closed off, tightly wound, close to unraveling. He is haunted by PTSD every waking moment, and in his dreams, he is visited by the ghost of a fallen comrade.
Before we even meet Paul and his fellow African American veterans, director Lee sets the mood for this 154-minute epic by taking us back to the tumultuous era of Paul’s origins story: the 1960s and 1970s. A graphic says, “Muhammad Ali, Chicago, Illinois, Feb. 26th, 1968,” as we see interview footage of Ali explaining why he wouldn’t fight in Vietnam: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother … some poor hungry people living in the mud. Shoot them for what? They never called me a n-----. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.” Cue Marvin Gaye’s “Make Me Wanna Holler” as we see images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on “Da Moon,” Angela Davis, Kent State, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Jackson State, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale talking about the long history of black Americans fighting in war after war, and newsreel footage of American soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. (The beautiful and powerful music of Marvin Gaye is featured to great effect throughout the story.)
Cut to “Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Today,” as Paul has reunited with his brothers in arms: Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). They have returned to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman in flashback sequences) and bring him home for a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Oh, and there’s also the matter of a buried chest filled with gold bars, and before that combined mission is over, a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears will be spilled. Director Lee and the team of writers have created an immersive, violent and sometimes shocking tapestry that plays out like “Deer Hunter” meets “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” with a steady undercurrent of subtle and not-so-subtle social and political commentary. (Example: When Lee cuts to footage of Donald Trump at a rally, he is identified as “President Fake Bone Spurs.”)
Lindo, Lewis, Whitlock and Peters immediately establish an easy and comfortable chemistry; we believe these men have bonded for life even though they rarely see each other nowadays. (Jonathan Majors rounds out the group as Paul’s grown son David, who has joined the mission in an effort to break long-simmering tensions with his father.) As they clink drinks and dance to Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up (Part 1)” in a nightclub and then set out on their journey into the jungle with little more than maps and memories to guide them, they’re infused with the spirit of adventure — but that soon turns sour and precarious.
Paul displays increasing signs of paranoia and is constantly at odds with the rest of the group, particularly his son. The group doesn’t know whether to trust the French “businessman” Desroche (Jean Reno) who has a struck a deal with them to turn their gold into offshore bank accounts, or a trio of landmine activists (Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Paakkonen) who seem to be shadowing their every step. Then there’s the matter of a gun-toting group of Vietnamese “police” who aren’t police and are bent on separating the Americans from that treasure, no matter what it takes.
There’s a LOT of movie in this movie, including some harrowing flashback battle sequences, filmed through a lens replicating the color TV news footage of the time. Chadwick Boseman is screen-commanding as Norman, who is a fearless leader and fighter but also awakens the social conscience of the squad. In present day, there are borderline melodramatic subplots, most notably one of the group revisiting an old lover and making a discovery we can see coming before she even answers the door.
The picture, the script and director Lee all deserve nomination consideration, as does the lush and booming score by Lee’s longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard. (Make sure you stick around for the closing credits, which are reminiscent of classic 1960s films such as “The Great Escape,” as the music soars while the actors are cited one after another for their performances.) Whitlock, Lewis, Peters and Boseman deserve supporting actor conversation, while Delroy Lindo should be an instant contender for best actor. There are monologue scenes that surely covered pages of the screenplay, as Lindo takes us into the tortured core of Paul’s soul and reveals the horrifying depths of the pain he has felt for decades — an agony so consuming perhaps only death is the remedy.
“Da 5 Bloods” is one of the best movies of the year.