June 11, 2020 | 10:59am | Updated June 11, 2020 | 11:55am
Running time: 154 minutes. Rated R (strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language).
Spike Lee’s gutsy new Netflix drama, “Da 5 Bloods,” sets you up and knocks you down.
After kicking off with archival footage of a suffering world during the Vietnam War, the Oscar winner has four black men in their sixties meet up for a happy present-day reunion at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
The buds — called the “Bloods” — are back to their former battlefield, we learn, to retrieve the remains of the fifth “Blood,” Stormin’ Norman (“Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, in flashback).
So, this must be Lee’s reckoning-with-’Nam film, you think. Movies about older men confronting the ghosts of that disastrous war is a popular club, with “The Last Full Measure” and Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” among the most recent members.
But “Da 5 Bloods” is not some misty-eyed heart-tugger with Bob Dylan crooning in the background. The Bloods have not only come to Vietnam to honor their pal; they’re there to recover a treasure of Vietnamese gold they buried decades earlier. What a juicy shift.
Getting to the red meat takes some time, though. The first hour bobs along casually, establishing the men’s personalities. Otis (Clarke Peters) is a pacifist with no hard feelings toward the locals, Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the group mediator, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is the funnyman and Paul (Delroy Lindo) is, well, a Trump voter who wears a MAGA cap.
By now, anybody who’s ever purchased a movie ticket should know that Lee is a director who puts his politics in your face. For my money, he’s one of the few who can do so considerately and in the service of a good story.
The plan is for Otis’ old flame Tiên (Y. Lan) and her French associate Desroche (Jean Reno) to help the men smuggle the gold into an offshore account, to bask forever in riches.
When the digging begins, your breathing ends. Like Lee did with the superb Best Picture nominee “BlacKkKlansman,” the director douses even the most euphoric moments in tension and discomfort.
Danger lurks everywhere. As the guys search for gold, you’re haunted by the thought of them stumbling on other less-welcoming metallic objects. A quick shot of two different men wandering the woods seems so long ago, you start to wonder if your nervous mind made it up.
The group — now joined by Paul’s son and some white activist tagalongs — becomes subsumed by greed. Instead of fulfilling their promise to Norman, to use the money to benefit their community, they all agree to keep the gold for themselves. That’s when their dream crumbles.
The acting, which up till now had been nice, suddenly switches into the year’s best so far. British actor Lindo, a Lee mainstay, delivers a one-shot, three-minute soliloquy to camera as he hikes through the forest. It’s a towering moment out of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” or August Wilson’s “Fences” that you won’t soon forget.
Peters, too, is sweet as Otis decides to stop running from his past. And it’s a thrill to see 57-year-old Lewis, who I’ve admired on Broadway for years, in his biggest film role to date.
Lee ends the movie on a political note, which makes sense, but waters down the potency of the men’s journey in a way that showing the Charlottesville, Va., attack at the end of “BlacKkKlansman” did not. Still, good for Lee for being a director of many ideas in a heartless Hollywood of sequels and franchises.