Delroy Lindo has been a that-guy since the 90’s, an indelible character actor who pops up in small supporting roles for a much-needed dash of swagger and gravitas. From Malcolm X to Congo to Gone in Sixty Seconds, from 1990 to 2004 you couldn’t see five movies without running into Lindo. He’s currently starring in The Good Fight for CBS, but has otherwise been mostly absent from mainstream filmmaking and television ever since. Da 5 Bloods is one big welcome-back for one of Hollywood’s most under-sung, an ode from Spike Lee to one of his oldest friends.
Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. are old friends reunited in Vietnam, having returned to seek out the gold they buried so many years ago during the war. They’re also back to visit the hollowed ground of their fallen comrade (Chadwick Boseman), a brash, honorable, well-spoken leader who for them was MLK and Malcolm X in one man. With capitalist encroachment and American corporations on every street corner (Lee doesn’t shy away from McDonald’s in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City), we learn the war never left Vietnam, as evidenced by literal mine fields and local mercenaries with an axe to grind against American tourists. We also learn that for these four men the war never ended either, as symbolized by Lee’s refusal to de-age or re-cast for their younger selves in a series of flashbacks. Using a 4:3 aspect ratio and 70’s-style film, these glimpses of the past are enlightening for what we witness of their deceased friend, the mythic Stormin’ Norman. Boseman is exceptionally charismatic, imbuing him with such likable confidence and revolutionary swagger you never question why a younger man is leading older men into battle.
While he dominates the past, Lindo dominates the present as Paul, a bitter man who reps a red MAGA cap and drops “gook” at the drop of a hat. Like many of his generation, his resentment and PTSD has metastasized over the years into something resembling a mental break. His son David (Jonathan Majors) surprises him on the trip, insisting he tag along to protect his father from himself. Their relationship is fraught with anger, disappointment, and perennial disagreement. Paul can’t find it in himself to love his son properly, for reasons we’ll discover later. His support for Trump is more so a shorthand for character than it is a grand statement of any kind. Regardless, Paul is certainly the most complex interpretation of Trumpism we’ve seen out of Lee, whether in his own films or his fervent comments in interviews. Paul’s political leanings motivate his often selfish and seriously erratic behavior, but they do not define him. Despite every reason not to, Lindo and Lee make him somebody we want to lean into and listen to, if not root for in the end. He has a story and a point of view we may not relate to, but we can listen and empathize too. Paul’s journey is riveting and eventually leads to an extended, lonely monologue through the jungle that instantly places Lindo on the shortlist for Best Actor. His ratty MAGA hat has a journey unto itself, from Paul to a mercenary to a preening Frenchman.
Despite a majority of the film being set in 2020, you’d be forgiven for watching and believing you were watching a Vietnam war film through and through. There are obvious references to Apocalypse Now, there’s an extended melee between the four men and a small army of soldiers who still call themselves the Vietcong, and there are even Frenchmen who are either caught in the crossfire (Jasper Pääkkönen, Melanie Thierry) or double-crossing our lead characters out of spite and with smarmy excess (Jean Reno). Speaking of 90’s that-guys, it’s good to see Reno back at it again, playing another member of France’s stiff-upper-lip-elite. While much of the film’s climax is clearly evoking Vietnam history and doing so with tension and panache, perhaps the most thrilling yet thematic moment comes about half-way when one character steps on a land mine and everyone else, including a team of land mine removal experts (Paul Walter Hauser, and the aforementioned Frenchmen caught in the crossfire), must put aside their differences to help him. It’s some of the most taut, edge-of-your-seat filmmaking in Spike’s long, storied career, and he made it happen on the small screen.
Spike has some difficulty threading the needle between plot and potent themes of today. There are clear attempts at doing so, but establishing a connection between past and present, between a cadre of black Vietnam vets scouring the jungle for buried gold and modern race relations is a tougher task than say, connecting the story of BlacKkKlansman to our current fractured country. Spike has other thoughts anyway, such as what decades of disappointment can rain upon men at their worst. What happens to veterans, specifically black veterans, when they’ve grown old and discovered their glory days were all for nothing? These ruminations, as well as a delightful cast and masterful suspense, aid the great Delroy Lindo in making Da 5 Bloods another entertaining entry in Lee’s burgeoning oeuvre.