Da 5 Bloods ★★1/2
Available: Streaming Netflix; see JustWatch here.
For more than three decades Director Spike Lee has powerfully presented the black experience in America, as he sees it. He’s at it again with this 2 hour and 34 minute wanna-be epic, featuring 4 black veterans of a Vietnam combat unit, returning to recover a chest of gold bars they buried decades ago in the Vietnamese countryside. Gold corrupts, and $17 million of gold corrupts absolutely, so it’s clear the quest will go less than smoothly; if you’ve seen John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), you know that someone in the group will go a bit crazy and a bit paranoid and endanger the caper.
For Lee, the meta message is that little has changed in a half-century.
If it were that simple, we’d be in for a good ride, but it’s not. The gang of 4 wants to retrieve something else: the body of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther,” 2018), their charismatic squad leader in Vietnam, who managed to get his men out alive while articulating a Muhammad Ali-like moral critique of the conflict and the role of blacks in it. For Lee, the meta message is that little has changed in a half-century: in 1968, blacks fought for rights they didn’t have (the film opens with Ali’s 1967 speech opposing the war [“and shoot them for what? They never called me n….”]). In 2020, they’re still without rights, struggling against white racism under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. As one of the 4 says in retrospect: “We fought in an immoral war that wasn't ours for rights we didn't have.”
One can accept or quarrel with that assessment, but Lee’s talent is as a storyteller, and “Da 5 Bloods” should be evaluated not simply as a political statement but more as a narrative—and on that basis, it fails.
Of the 4 Bloods who arrive in Ho Chi Minh City to begin their journey, only 2 contribute much to the story. Paul (Delroy Lindo), the group’s leader, is a big, angry, explosive, guilt-ridden Trumpian (MAGA hat included) with PTSD (“I see ghosts”); his character is so large that it diminishes everyone else in the film. The other Blood of note is Otis (Clarke Peters), a medic in ‘Nam and now the “healer,” trying to hold things together.
The plot also makes room for some Vietnamese—problematically.
The plot also makes room for some Vietnamese—problematically. A few—like the one-legged beggar, the Bloods’ guide Vinh Tran (Johnny Nguyen), and a chicken-seller—are there to make the obvious points that the war had consequences, and that not all Vietnamese have forgiven the Americans. “After you've been in a war, you understand it never really ends,” says Vinh. But most of the Vietnamese, like the Japanese in World War II films, are human fodder in several shoot-‘em-up scenes on the order of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969). Less germane is a cadre of European do-gooders who somehow show up deep in the jungle, precisely where the Bloods are. Their self-appointed task is to locate unexploded land mines (and their function in the film is to let us know that someone will step on one).
Then there’s Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” ), a mild-mannered school teacher who wants to do the Vietnam adventure with Dad, mainly because his presence is required by the script—a grab-bag product of 4 writers, 2 of them, including Lee, black ideologues, the other 2 white action film writers. In one of the film’s many ill-conceived scenes, David grabs a shovel and heads far down a steep hill to relieve himself, starts digging a hole he plans to fill up, and—guess what he finds! Later, though he’s never handled a firearm, David will miraculously shoot a very bad guy and save the day.
The idea, one imagines, is that David has become one of the Bloods— acknowledged by his learning their intricate handshake—a status perhaps necessary for him to reconcile with his estranged, tormented father, Paul. Father/son bonding is a Hollywood staple, but Lee vitiates the trope by coming to it too many times (bonding/conflict, bonding/conflict…), the last in a maudlin and poorly scripted letter from the grave, reminiscent of the cloying father-to-son soliloquy in 2018’s “Call Me By Your Name.”
Lee apparently intended that the issue of how the gold would be distributed would serve to clarify a series of moral problems that span the war and the contemporary moment and that intersect with concerns about race and American imperialism. The result is less clarity than a confusion of possibilities. There’s the narrow issue of whether David should get a share, with opinions changing over time as David’s role in the project expands. Curiously, the land-mine folks, who ought to hold the ethical high ground, also demand a share. On another level, the arguments include that the money should go to “our people” (that is, black Americans), perhaps as “reparations,” or because Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the American Revolution, or because Agent Orange was used in Vietnam, or because George Washington owned slaves, or all of the above. The armed Vietnamese thugs who harass our heroes at every turn believe the gold properly belongs to the Vietnamese because of what Lt. William Calley did at My Lai. The presence of so much gold also results in some James Bond-style international intrigue, featuring an elite, moral-less French villain, patronizingly leading the Vietnamese heavies. Add in the multitude of conspiracy theories espoused throughout by various characters, and instead of mystery, the result is murkiness.
Lee gets some things right. The use of the older men in the flashback scenes of the war works. Terrence Blanchard’s score is intriguing. Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo) is seductive, erotically and politically, even today.
In contrast to the best of Lee’s other films, this one looks and feels as if it’s been lifted from Hollywood’s past.
In contrast to the best of Lee’s other films, which have a sui generis quality and the sense of being contained in a specific place and time (“Do the Right Thing,” 1989), this one looks and feels as if it’s been lifted from Hollywood’s past, perhaps a consequence of the screenplay having been crafted by 4 writers, each with his own silver screen memory. Besides Huston’s “Treasure,” the film echoes “Apocalypse Now,” 1979 (Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” music as our gang goes into the bush), “Mean Streets,” 1973 (the floating/tracking shots), “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” 1981 (the temple ruins, a venomous snake, a trap), and Lee’s own “BlacKKKlansman,” 2018, with its opening and closing montages of past and present. Lee even takes pains to situate Boseman on a throne-like backdrop (made of fronds in the wilds of Vietnam) designed to evoke Boseman on a similar throne in “Black Panther,” a portrait which itself replicates the iconic 1966 photo of Huey Newton, an original Black Panther.
Derivative, unfocused, politically superficial, and sometimes silly, “Da 5 Bloods” isn’t the epic Lee thought he was making.
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Chadwick Boseman, Johnny Nguyen, Van Veronica Ngo
Languages: English, Finnish, French, Vietnamese, with English subtitles
Runtime: 154 minutes