They call themselves Da Bloods.
They were, back in the day, five Army soldiers who fought together as one in the jungles of Vietnam. They had each other’s backs, they loved each other as brothers, and they flew under the commanding officers’ radar, linked by the same beating heart. And one could justifiably say that a soldier known as Stormin’ Norman was that heart.
He was the strongest of them, their passionate leader. He rallied them, gave them focus. And he was also the one who fell in battle. The soldier who was left behind.
Now, all these years later, the five Bloods are back together in Vietnam. They’re older, greyer and plumper. But they’re still the brothers they used to be. And they’re back in this modernized Saigon—that looks as different as they do, in a way—to find the guy they left behind.
With permission papers from both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments, as well as some solid intel, these brothers in arms are back to retrieve Norman’s remains and bring him home.
Of course, what the representative governments don’t really know is that Paul, Eddie, Melvin and Otis are not just there for Norman. They also hope to get their hands on a stash of gold bullion that they buried together way back when. Command thought the gold payment had been stolen by the Vietcong after the transporting C-47 went down. But in truth, the Bloods had found it and buried that chest of gold bars not far from where they left Norman’s body.
So the government is actually facilitating two goals: the retrieval of an M.I.A. soldier’s body and the Bloods’ private plan for a personal payoff for their wartime service and sacrifice. Of course, the Bloods also hope that second “good deed” can fly right under Uncle Sam’s radar. Just like the old days.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Although Da 5 Bloods has a tendency to shift its messages, a thread runs throughout the film that pushes against the idea of finding change through violence. In one flashback scene, for instance, the Bloods want to seek revenge for a wrong done to a black man, but Norman orders them to stand down. “We don’t let anybody use our rage against us,” he declares. “We control our rage.” Norman then goes so far as to say that if the others want to harm someone, they’ll need to go through him first.
Characters in the movie waffle quite a bit in their view of God, depending on their immediate point of view. When the men finally rediscover the hidden buried gold and Norman’s shallow grave, they declare that it’s “holy ground” and call out their thanks skyward. They offer a prayer of thanks to a “blessed, holy God.” And when someone is rescued from a deadly fate, Paul cries out, “God is great!”
Later, though, Paul screams out Psalm 23 while storming away in an act of defiance. And when things don’t go his way, the same man growls out that he is in charge of his own fate. He laughingly looks to heaven and snarls, “God, you’re a trickster!”
While in a dreamlike fugue, a man encounters the now deceased Norman, who offers him forgiveness for an accidental misdeed. “God is love,” Norman states. But in other flashback scenes, he and the other men repeatedly declare that life is purposely stacked against them by the powers that be.
We’re told that Paul believed in Norman “like a religion.” When Norman’s dog tags are dug up, they’re intertwined with a cross necklace he wore. When Paul’s son David show’s up in Vietnam, too, he meets someone who asks about his name, “Like David from the Bible?” David suggests however, that he was named after a member of the Temptations.
Otis meets up with an old flame in Vietnam and discovers that he has a daughter that he never knew about. When he asks why she never told him, the woman says that having a “bastard child of the enemy” was something she had to keep undercover.
Jokes are made about erections. Paul’s son, David, meets a young French woman he’s interested in. During their introductory conversation, she mentions a guy whom she says that she turns to “for sex every once in a while.”
Director Spike Lee uses footage of real-life atrocities from the ‘60s and ‘70s, including pictures of bloodied, dead children in Vietnam with body parts blown off and screaming children who have had their skin burned off by napalm bombings. We also see real-world footage of a man setting himself on fire and a Vietnamese man shot in the temple and falling to the ground as his wound continues to spout a steady stream of blood. Other newsreel clips deal with murders and shootings—including those of Martin Luthor King Jr. and a variety of young people on college campuses—which some will find very disturbing. All of the images we see in the news clips are brutal to look upon.
In the course of the drama, there are a number of rifle and pistol shootouts and ambushes, both in the present and in flashback scenes. Many soldiers get shot or get caught in explosions; we see them gush large quantities of blood and gore. Others are badly wounded and have to have large wounds dressed. Two different men step on landmines and are ripped asunder. The camera looks closely at one screaming victim who has lost both arms and who has had the lower half of his body obliterated into pulp. One man is shot in the forehead, a wound we see inflicted close-up.
A helicopter gets shot out of the sky, and only a handful of occupants survive. Those who don’t are viciously splattered by gunfire and the crash. Grenades are launched and thrown. In one case, a man throws himself on a live grenade to protect others and is instantly killed.
We’re told of some of the deadly outcomes of the Vietnam war including the fates of those who were sent to Communist re-education camps. We see a young man who had his leg blown off in the war. And other Vietnamese people who are still emotionally devastated because of losses in the “American War.” People use the biblical mention of an “eye for an eye” as a justification for bloody revenge.
Someone is bitten by a poisonous snake. A woman lops the head off a large snake in a marketplace. Innocents are held at gunpoint and bound hand and foot. A soldier is accidentally killed by friendly fire. (The camera examines his stomach wound.)
Foul language is like a battlefield all its own in this pic. Some 120 f-words and nearly 60 s-words are joined by 25 uses of “a–,” 10 of “d–n” and multiple uses of “b–tard,” “b–ch” and “h—.” Jesus’ name is misused a couple times and God’s name is combined with “d–n” on some 20 occasions. We hear about a dozen uses of he n-word (in various forms). And crude references are made to female genitalia.
We see a number of people smoking, including Norman, a young French woman and the Vietcong’s infamous Hanoi Hannah, whom we see smoking in several flashback clips. Otis has a bad hip and swallows prescription pills for the pain. Those pills are shared with a man, later on, who’s been shot.
People drink wine with dinner. Social drinkers imbibe wine, beer and mixed drinks in a variety of settings. The Bloods and lots of others drink profusely at a local night club. One of their number gets pretty drunk and needs to be helped back to the hotel.
Our current president is verbally bashed and demeaned repeatedly in sometimes crude, sometimes winking and sometimes symbolic ways—with one character even going so far as to call him “the Klansman in the oval office.” Several French characters declare that America’s view of historical events, such as World War II and the Vietnam War, are “ignorant.”
In the course of the dramatic story, people are betrayed, and numerous lies told. Injustice in history is used as a valid excuse for theft. And an adult son is verbally disowned: “You ain’t been nothin’ but an anchor around my neck since the day you was born,” a father publicly tells his boy. Greed eventually separates friends.
Director Spike Lee’s latest “joint” (as he likes to call his movies) is a study in contrasts: It’s at times thoughtful, then crude and foul; purposeful, then ambiguous and disjointed; it preaches peace then foments anguish and rage.
In fact, in a very real sense, Da 5 Bloods is a two-sided construct. It’s two very different films stitched together with a lightly collaborative filament.
On the one hand, you have a slow-moving, profane and bloody drama about a group of black veterans who return to Vietnam in search of ill-gotten gold. But during their journey, they actually end up finding everything from a sense of spiritual release and forgiveness to, in some cases, a cold and pointless death.
On the other hand, Da 5 Bloods also unmistakably delivers Spike Lee’s point of view regarding black history in scenes that point out all of the political, social, and cultural injustices and misdeeds that the director identifies as the building blocks of our current troubled society.
Accordingly, clips of controversial black activist figures such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis paint a disparaging picture of an intrinsically racist and fascist America. It’s a perspective some viewers may agree with, while others may well disagree with it strongly. Dramatic moments throughout the film continually reinforce Lee’s perspective on what he sees as corrupt and shortsighted nation.
The cinematic result? Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods can be uplifting and hard to stomach at the same time. But you can’t have the good without the bad here, and we witness plenty of both. Heroism and horror, profundity and profanity all have their moments here. Which is, if you think about it, very much like the fallen world in which we live.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.