With “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee follows his long overdue Oscar win for “BlacKkKlansman” by revealing a side of the Vietnam story that’s seldom told. Through the Trojan horse of a treasure-hunt adventure movie, the director explores the mindset of Black soldiers who fought for their country at a time when African Americans were being oppressed at home. With one foot in the past and the other striding in sync with the Black Lives Matter movement, Lee interweaves potent social critique with escapist B-movie thrills as four veterans return to ’Nam to claim the loot they were ordered to retrieve decades earlier, but stashed for themselves instead. The result is overlong and erratic, but also frequently surprising for a contemporary riff on the classic greed-doesn’t-pay parable “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
Entertainment journalists have taken to describing “Da 5 Bloods” as “timely” because its release coincides with the nationwide protests that spontaneously arose following the murder of George Floyd. That is true, but let’s be clear: Lee has always been ahead-of-his-timely. He reminded us of that a week ago with his new “3 Brothers” video, which identifies the horrifying pattern connecting the murder of Radio Raheem in 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” to the more recent choking deaths of Floyd and Eric Garner. “Will History Stop Repeating Itself?” the short film implores. And now, “Da 5 Bloods” — which the Cannes Film Festival reportedly intended to screen out of competition — marks another bold salvo from an artist committed to delivering political statements through popular entertainment.
In this case, Lee has Netflix behind him, which offers the widest possible exposure for the straight-to-streaming release at a time when movie theaters are just barely beginning to reopen. For better or worse, the project has a distinctive Netflix feel to it as well: a shaggy structure, an unwieldy run time and small-screen-quality visual effects. The company is committed to enabling auteurs to make their passion projects, granting them greater freedom and resources than the traditional studios do. Directors repeatedly prove to be their own worst enemies when given carte blanche, and Lee occasionally self-sabotages here: The 155-minute film opens strong, addressing the past and present trauma of Black GIs, before devolving into a series of formulaic standoffs in the back half.
Once that happens, even a handful of fully committed performances — most notably from de facto squad leader Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman as the fallen hero they all look up to — can’t keep it from becoming the kind of generic pyrotechnic action fodder Hollywood churned out back in the ’90s, complete with booby traps and stock double crosses. But “Da 5 Bloods” is smarter than its Indiana Jones-style set-pieces. Lee and “BlacKkKlansman” collaborator Kevin Willmott took “The Last Tour” — a spec script by “The Rocketeer” co-writers Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, in which a handful of white vets head back to the jungle to retrieve a trunk full of gold — and overhauled the concept to address larger concerns of inequality and discrimination.
“Da 5 Bloods” kicks off with a wrenchingly effective montage — a socko 160-second distillation of the heated civil rights battle that raged on the home front while the United States sent those it deemed expendable to fight in a foreign war, featuring stinging soundbites from Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, who predicts, “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon.” Leave it to Lee to begin a heist movie with Black Panther talking points: a signal that this film views race as central to its critique of both the Vietnam War and American culture.
Historical context thus established, the squad’s four surviving soldiers — Eddie (Norm Lewis, who played the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway), Melvin (Lee regular Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters of “The Wire”) and Paul (Lindo, outstanding as the gang’s most damaged member) — reunite in a posh Ho Chi Minh City hotel. Rather than limiting its critique to the U.S., the movie also confronts racism in contemporary Vietnam, as when Otis goes to visit his wartime flame Tiên (Lê Y Lan), discovering the daughter (Sandy Hương Phạm) he didn’t know existed — touching on a subject central to the musical “Miss Saigon” and too few other works. Citing the racial slur locals have hurled at their child all her life, Tiên chillingly observes, “The white GI taught us that word.”
Joined by Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), the foursome set off for the jungle to the thundering horns of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a too-obvious reference to that most ambitious of Vietnam movies, “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a point often made that filmmakers need some distance to grapple with such a significant event as war, and Coppola’s epic may have followed too closely on the heels of America’s failed intervention in Vietnam to grasp some of the finer points that Lee raises here, including the idea that Black soldiers often had conflicting opinions about how to respond to their own mistreatment.
Lee introduces ill-fated squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Boseman) via flashback scenes in which he appears alongside his four comrades. (With the exception of one clearly manipulated snapshot at the outset, “Da 5 Bloods” avoids de-aging the actors as Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” did, an unconventional yet effective creative choice that gives these scenes an impressionistic air, suggesting how these men have been reliving these battles regularly in their own heads ever since. Until the CG face-replacement technology gets better, this is the right call in this context.) Norman unites the “Bloods,” who fight as a neatly coordinated unit — a band of brothers, rather than “Rambo”-like individuals — and later challenges their anger when Hanoi Hannah delivers the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
“We won’t let nobody use our rage against us. We control our rage,” Norman insists, as the soldiers agree that the gold — recovered from a CIA plane downed en route to paying Lahu allies for information about the Viet Cong — is rightfully theirs. In most treasure movies, avarice is reason enough to drive men to risk their lives. Here, their motives are more engaged, invoking “reparations” decades before the concept entered the mainstream.
“We was the very first people who died for this red, white and blue,” Norman argues. “We been dying for this country from the very get, hoping one day they’d give us our rightful place.” Here, editor Adam Gough cuts to a portrait of Crispus Attucks, shot to death in the Boston Massacre, in an approach determined not to let the film’s historical details — deliberately overlooked in so many classrooms — get lost. The movie has a dynamic, self-conscious feel at times, as DP Newton Thomas Sigel alternates between stocks and aspect ratios, and characters sing along with Marvin Gaye, several of whose songs are interwoven with Terence Blanchard’s emotion-rousing score.
It’s an engaging approach until, at nearly the midpoint, the men find their buried treasure. Next, honoring a long-ago oath, they turn their attention to locating Norman’s remains, which they succeed in doing only moments later. Having achieved these goals so early in the script, the film seems uncertain where to go, beyond the obvious strategy of letting greed divide them. There are other obstacles, too, in the form of a foreign land-mine-removal organization called LAMB (similar to the HALO Trust), a shady French fence (played by Jean Reno) and a group of contemporary Vietnamese soldiers (led by Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm), all of whom want in on the haul.
Apart from LAMB volunteers Simon (Paul Walter Hauser) and Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen), the film’s white characters are French, which evokes an earlier chapter of colonial exploitation in the region only tangentially addressed. The film juggles a budding attraction between Paul’s son David and LAMB leader Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry) that it handles awkwardly, while reducing the locals who claim the gold to sadistic Asian caricatures.
Audiences may be accustomed to such stereotypes in brain-dead action movies, but “Da 5 Bloods” is so sophisticated early on that it’s disheartening to see it fall back on lazy clichés. Such missteps make it tricky to accept some of Lee’s bolder choices in the second half, as when Lindo’s MAGA hat-wearing character Paul goes rogue, delivering two long monologues directly to the camera. Lindo is dynamite in the role, which, read a certain way, represents an intriguing variation on the usual PTSD tropes: one whose trauma isn’t limited to Vietnam, but extends to the racism he has faced on the domestic front as well.
Consider the soldiers’ original mission — not the scheme that brings them back to ’Nam now but the one that sent them into harm’s way in the first place. The U.S. government ordered these men to recover millions of dollars in gold bars, fully aware that it might cost them their lives. No wonder Norm concludes that war is money and money is war. “Da 5 Bloods” confronts where Black soldiers fit into this equation — at roughly the same level they did in the American economic system that was built upon their backs. That’s a tough lesson echoed by the Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating off-screen in the streets. Lee anticipated their anger, while restoring overlooked Americans’ place in history once again. Even though his critique feels grafted onto this uneven genre outing at times, it’s hard to imagine a more resonant movie for this moment.