Spike Lee’s long overdue comeback with 2018’s terrific BlacKkKlansman has come to an abrupt stop with Da 5 Bloods.
It should be a felony to waste this many good actors.
Four of the five bloods are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) — army veterans in their late sixties who return to Vietnam to collect the body of the fifth blood, their beloved squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Oh, and they are also after a big suitcase filled with CIA gold.
The names of the lead characters might sound familiar to music fans. It’s probably not a coincidence Lee’s characters share the names of the original Temptations and the legendary Motown producer (Norman Whitfield) who helped make them famous. Anyway…
Da 5 Bloods opens perfectly with the old guys enjoying a reunion after 45 or so years. Soon they are joined by Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), whose motives fly all over the place to suit what will become a melodramatic and unfocussed plot.
The first 30 minutes or so are the movie’s best, and I appreciate how Lee refuses to rush things as he introduces the characters and allows us to enjoy some hang-out time with these great actors. But this is also where the cracks begin to show. Sure, we immediately get a grip on Lindo’s Paul, an embittered man who’s come to get what’s owed to him. And thanks to his magnificent presence, you always know exactly who Clarke Peters is: his Otis is all soul and wisdom.
Left twisting, though, are Lewis’s Eddie and Whitlock’s Melvin. These are characters defined by exposition as opposed to behavior and action, which means they aren’t defined at all. After about two hours, Lee has Whitlock fire off his classic Sheeeeeee-ittt, a catchphrase he made famous playing a corrupt state senator on HBO’s The Wire, and the fact that you enjoy such a cheap applause moment only serves to prove how desperate you are at that point for any sign of life.
What kills Da 5 Bloods are two things. The first is that the plot constantly stops so a character can fire off a woke lecture about evil Donald Trump, imperialist America, oxycontin, slave owner George Washington, and on and on and on… Something that makes Lee such a unique filmmaker is that he is not afraid to create characters who are stridently political. Sometimes this works marvelously (Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman) but after the Da 5 Bloods’ first act, you start to roll your eyes.
The second problem is pacing. Da 5 Bloods is not an epic, it’s a genre film, and a 155 minute genre film is a slog. The movie just goes on and on and on… Scenes that long ago made their point go on and on and on… At 110 minutes, Da 5 Bloods could have still made all its political points but done so without treading so much water.
Let me put it this way… If my intent had not been to review Da 5 Bloods, I would have shut it off after 90 minutes, which is when I stopped caring about the characters and what would happen next.
A lot has been made out of the fact that Lindo’s Paul is a Trump supporter in a MAGA hat. Unfortunately, Lee is not interested in exploring the dynamics of a black man who supports Trump. If you make it to the end, you’ll see that the hat has an almost mystical quality to turn men evil.
Lee’s big emotional moments also fail to hit the mark, especially during that last 15 minutes. Nothing is earned, which makes it cheesy melodrama.
Despite all his directorial flourishes — overwrought musical scoring (that usually works remarkably well), the sharp colors of his cinematography (which I love), the seething anger, those affecting moments that place his characters on a moving dolly, his political and social commentary — at heart, Lee is a classical filmmaker. There’s no question he wants Da 5 Bloods to be his Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Instead, though, it ends up becoming Lee’s Triple Frontier, another Netflix disappointment about veterans regrouping to get theirs, another waste of some great actors.
Da 5 Bloods is not a catastrophe or embarrassment. It’s not even Lee’s worst war movie. That was Miracle at St. Anna, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s just way too long and too reactionary — it’s exactly the kind of movie you get from a filmmaker who just won an Oscar and now thinks he can do no wrong. In other words, it’s a self-indulgent trudge, which is unfortunate…. With a smart producers pushing Lee to cut 35 to 45 minutes, Da 5 Bloods might have at least been worth your time.