Da 5 Bloods movie poster
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Da 5 Bloods
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Da 5 Bloods Movie Review

What timing. As the United States creaks and flexes its shackles--its long, oft-dismissed racism finally facing, maybe, some form of reckoning--Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods debuts on Netflix, giving the streaming service a pedigree release just as books and movies about America’s complex race relations skyrocket in popularity. Plus, it’s been a while since there has been a good Vietnam war movie.

Of course, “good” is relative. 

I’ve always found Mr. Lee to be pretty hit or miss, his impassioned message often outweighing cohesive filmmaking or storytelling. Da 5 Bloods is by no means a bad film, but it’s far from a great one, too, a messy, even sloppy drama that doesn’t quite manage to bring all of its disparate pieces together.

The movie is about four black ex-Vietnam vets who return to the country to find their fallen leader, buried in the jungle decades earlier, and perhaps more importantly alongside a stash of gold bricks. Needless to say, they aren’t the only ones who want the gold, and the reunion with a world that led to so many deaths pushes some of them, most notably Paul (Delroy Lindo), a hypercharged, hate-filled man haunted by his past, to the breaking point.

Though Da 5 Bloods features flashbacks to the war, including a few decently staged though not particularly well done action sequences, much of the film’s emphasis remains on modern day. More death and action ensues than you may expect, with the film taking on a quasi-heist plot with scheming third parties, most notably one led by Jean Reno.

As someone who tends to take things at face value and not get consumed by the underlying messages or themes if the surface level stuff isn’t up to snuff, I found Da 5 Bloods to be clunky at best. It’s never boring but it’s never engrossing, either, the overlaying plot all over the place and ultimately sort of cheesy. The gory violence seems ripped from another movie; a scene where a man accidentally steps on a landmine looks more like something out of an 80’s horror movie than a war drama released in 2020. 

As a commentary on race, Da 5 Bloods didn’t really click with me--while it was interesting to learn that nearly a third of American soldiers in Vietnam were disproportionately black, the movie didn’t focus on that in the overt way I’ve come to expect from Lee. Of course, not going the expected route is just fine, perhaps even preferred, but Da 5 Bloods leans heavily on angry rants and snippy dialogue rather than cohesive subtext.

Actually, maybe that’s exactly what I should have expected from Lee.

The movie’s saving grace is its cast. Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors, and Chadwick Boseman all bring their characters to life in inspiring ways, forming a dynamic group of friends who have all taken a different path in life yet are intrinsically linked by their past. Understandably, though, it’s Delroy Lindo who steals the show; Paul is a troubled individual and a walking contradiction, a MAGA-loving black man who hates immigrants and certainly hates the Vietnamese. He’s also quite fascinating. Other critics have been raving about him, and while I found his performance a little over-the-top at times, he certainly is head-turning.

There is no denying that Spike Lee put his sweat and tears into Da 5 Bloods, but unrivaled passion has never been the director’s issue. It’s that same passion that often gets him in trouble, though; the movie is rough around the edges, shoddily put together at times, and while others are maybe able to get caught up in the moment--it’s easy to declare this movie as the right movie for the times--and overlook these shortcomings, Da 5 Bloods suffers as a result. Maybe it’s worth seeing, but it’s far from a must-see.

Unrelated, let me simply say that black lives matter. Every life matters, yes, but it is clear that black people continue to face immense challenges in society and especially at the hands of the police. While I’ve never considered myself as anti-police, the videos in recent weeks and the stories I’ve heard from personal friends makes clear that there is pervasive and systemic racism that cost men and women their lives, freedom, and chances at better lives. Whether or not you agree with “defund the police,” you should at least be able to acknowledge that there are problems--problems that can be solved, but not without significant change

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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