Da 5 Bloods (3 stars)

Da 5 Bloods

Persuasive and passionate yet pretty inconsistent Vietnam-set adventure from Spike Lee

With the fight for racial justice back in full flow, a new film from Spike Lee is exactly what's required. Giving us a lesson in historical wrongs and featuring Black Lives Matter powerfully in its closer, the Vietnam-set Da 5 Bloods brims with palpable rage and heartfelt reflection, taking an educated, never-less-than-interesting look at military service and sacrifice. Sadly, it is also something of a muddle.

'It's strange how a war never ends for those involved,' muses a French landmine hunter (Mélanie Thierry) in a film that follows four African American Vietnam War vets as they return to the scene of their trauma to unearth a fortune in stolen gold and lay claim to the bones of their fallen comrade (Chadwick Boseman's messianic squad leader 'Stormin Norm'). Played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis, the quartet are in high spirits as they reunite, but mistrust and mental breakdown lie on the horizon.

Rocking a getting-the-gang-back-together vibe and marrying it with Apocalypse Now tributes, Da 5 Bloods can be both joyful (in a sequence where the men boogie their way in unison through a bar) and, as such reunion movies so often are, a little cringing. In fact, predicting its tone from scene to scene, even second to second is impossible. It gives us a patchwork of black pride and pain, wonderfully incorporating cultural and sporting landmarks (the music of Marvin Gaye, the gravity-defying feats of hurdler Edwin Moses) and making a potent case for the betrayal these men have suffered at the hands of their country.

Other choices are questionable (the main stars appear as themselves in the wartime flashbacks, sans de-aging effects, which takes some getting used to) and the characterisations can be sketchy (particularly that of The Last Black Man in San Francisco's Jonathan Majors, who appears as the son of Lindo's character Paul). Still, Lee carves out an eye-catching lead role for the towering Lindo, who gets to act his socks off as a paranoid, embittered, politically dunderheaded pensioner in a MAGA cap.

There's histrionic action and tragedy, supposed to evoke the past but an odd fit for the modern context. Given that three other screenwriters are credited alongside Lee (Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who wrote the original screenplay, and BlacKkKlansman's Kevin Willmott, who reworked their script with Lee), the cacophony of voices may explain the film's shape-shifting nature.

With wildly anomalous musical choices contributing to the uneven tone, if Da 5 Bloods doesn't satisfactorily cohere, it can be an emotional, persuasively outraged, entertainingly batshit experience, its director emphatic in his desire to deliver a different kind of Vietnam War film. For all its inconsistencies, it is, unmistakably, a Spike Lee joint.

Available to watch on Netflix from Fri 12 Jun.