Spike Lee’s latest joint is a Netflix exclusive centered around a group of veterans from an African-American army squad (the eponymous “Bloods”) returning to Vietnam under the pretense of finding the remains of their fellow member, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was the Bloods’ military leader and spiritual teacher, educating his squadron about the oppression of African-Americans during intermissions between firefights. Although the search for the corpse of their beloved leader is legitimate, the Bloods also have an ulterior motive: to find gold bullion that they buried during the war.
Spike Lee always has been a political filmmaker, and subtlety never was his idiom. Another staple of Lee’s films is their allusions to other movies. This film is no exception; with its flashbacks to combat (where, appropriately, the stock becomes grainier and the dimensions condense into a square-like aspect ratio) and the inevitable manifestations of greed, the story recalls both “Apocalypse Now” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, except that Lee refashions their themes to reflect both the historical and contemporary issues plaguing African-Americans: the overarching moral hypocrisy of the US Army as touched upon in “Apocalypse Now” is altered to reflect the absurdity of African-American soldiers fighting to obtain freedoms for the South Vietnamese that they lacked in America. Similarly, the degradation in interpersonal relations between the treasure hunters as depicted in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” stems from a different source than pure greed: in Lee’s film, the characters argue as to if they should give it to social justice organizations dedicated to bettering the race as a whole or if they should keep it for themselves as recompense for their decades of suffering—the two different strains of reparations colliding head-on, as it were. If this were not direct enough, Lee also punctuates the film with documentary footage, effectively interrupting the story to teach the audience various tenets of African-American history.
Normally, this would be enough to occupy and satisfy the thematic requirements for a meaningful, probing work of cinema; apparently, Lee thought otherwise. The character of Descroche (Jean Reno)—a slimy, amoral French businessman who agrees to help the Bloods smuggle the gold out of Vietnam—is a representation of the omnipresent specter of the fallout of European colonialism that still haunts the region via the remnants of greed and exploitation. Contrarily, Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry) typifies the other reparations movement going on today, the amends for centuries of colonialism; the heiress to a fortune made from a rubber factory stationed in Vietnam, she feels guilty for her ancestors’ willingness to oppress for the sake of money, and instead works for a non-profit that deactivates land mines still littering the jungles. And, to round it all up, Lee attempts to portray the lingering effect on the Vietnamese psyche from the “American War”, the anger and mistrust still directed towards G.I.’s today. The film even features a group of Vietnamese gunmen who claim the gold themselves for a dual purpose: to prevent further Western encroachment on Vietnamese property and as reparations for the suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people.
As one might have already guessed, “Da 5 Bloods” runs into the same problem that plagued the Redux cut of “Apocalypse Now”: it simply tries to tackle too many themes and, in the process, seriously underdevelops some of them. The character of Hedy ultimately is reduced to a love-interest, with no further exploration of her reckoning with her family’s legacy. Similarly, the Vietnamese gunfighters are just turned into cannon-fodder baddies. Effectively, the Vietnamese point of view is nothing but the talking-points of characterless trigger-happy stock villains.
In addition, the overflow of themes adds unnecessarily to the bloat of an already-long movie. When a new political or historical undercurrent keeps getting tacked onto the film, continuously interrupting the main thrust and storyline, the pace becomes increasingly sluggish. Compounding this problem are the diversions of archival footage and didactic Hanoi Hannah broadcasts that are punctuated throughout the film, adding more discordant diversions from the main story. Compare to another use of real-life footage from another Spike Lee film, “BlacKkKlansman”. In that film, the news footage is shocking, powerful, and poignant precisely because it was used sparingly and served as the epilogue to an already-finished, well-paced film—it was the evidence of the continued existence of the themes that the story was allowed to elucidate. Unfortunately, Lee did not let this story properly breathe and, as a result, its themes do not hit as powerfully as intended.
Yet, the film does have one redeeming quality that prevents it from being totally sleep-inducing and hopelessly scattershot: the mesmerizing performance of Delroy Lindo as the most interesting character, Paul. In contrast to the rest of the characters, Paul is an adamantly vocal Trump supporter and a believer in American exceptionalism. As the closest to his fallen brother-in-arms Norman, he has also been affected the worst by PTSD, which gradually eroded his ability to connect with his wife or son. Paul’s battles with his inner demons are the most interesting parts of the film mainly because of Lindo’s on-screen gravitas, his expert portrayal of grief and guilt masquerading as rage, as a man that has been slowly subsumed by mental horrors. Paul’s final moments, consisting of a three-minute soliloquy directed at the camera and a final hallucinatory vision, makes for magnetic viewing: the hypnotic performance of Lindo rendered hypnotic because it is as if Lindo himself is hypnotized, transfixed at the reversal of his spiritual necrosis, amazed at his verbal and visual expunging of the inner demons that have slowly torn apart his life for the past fifty years, and the sweet relief at the prospect of absolution. It is masterclass acting, and it would be a sin if Lindo is not nominated for an Oscar for it.
In all, “Da 5 Bloods” is not bad; it certainly is timely, but it is bloated and scattershot, preventing it, if this reviewer can be allowed to prophesy, from attaining the enduring legacy of, say, “Do The Right Thing.” To put it bluntly, the film’s nods to “Apocalypse Now” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” were not a good idea on the filmmaker’s part: they simply make the audience wish that they were seeing either one of those films instead.