Spike Lee, like his movies, operates on many levels. He’s a social commentator, a director and a storyteller. He's one of the few filmmakers who can be credited for creating a one-person genre. When you hear the words “a Spike Lee Joint,” you know that you’re probably entering terrain that’s part drama, part provocation, part corrective of the US historical record and part entertainment.
These ingredients can become seamless when Lee is at his best and can sometimes trip over one another when he’s not hitting his stride.
But it’s important to remember that Lee has created an aesthetic approach that practically constitutes a brand. He can poke an angry finger in your chest or flood a moment with tenderness.
So now comes Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a movie about Vietnam, black contributions to the US military, black bitterness about the lack of recognition for those contributions and, if that weren't enough, a story about a search for buried treasure — in this case, gold bullion — that sometimes intentionally evokes memories of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Using news footage to set the tone, Lee opens with a montage that surveys the boiling racial landscape that defined America during the war. Among the clips: protests, Muhammad Ali’s resistance, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at Manhattan's Riverside Church in which he turned his full attention to the war.
All of this is framed by a story with a rather straightforward plot. Four former infantrymen reunite in Ho Chi Minh city. Initially, their reunion is full of bonhomie and joy. Gradually, it becomes clear that the men, known as “The Bloods,” have more in mind than renewing old friendships.
They want to retrieve gold they buried during a harrowing mission and they want to recover the body of a fallen brother known as Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). The movie paints Norman as a kind of warrior saint who held the soldiers in his squad together and tired to direct them toward higher purposes, perhaps using the gold to help black folks at home.
Of the four Bloods, as the soldiers referred to themselves, two stand out: Clarke Peters’ Otis, a down-to-earth steadying influence who learns that he has a greater connection to Vietnam than the others. A wartime relationship resulted in a daughter, now grown, who Otis meets for the first time.
Delroy Lindo gives the movie’s most vivid, conflict-riddled performance. An anti-immigration guy who wears a MAGA hat, Lindo's Paul easily taps into his anger. He's joined by his son David (Jonathan Majors), a young man who followed his dad to Vietnam because he knows that his father occupies a PTSD-world of trouble.
Norm Lewis’ Eddie and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin fill out the foursome of veterans.
Working with three additional writers, Lee isn’t entirely successful at fusing all the issues that crop up and some of the dialogue carries the burden of exposition or of establishing -- or at least making reference to -- political dynamics embedded in the way the US fought the Vietnam War.
Flashback scenes to the war feature Boseman, who's powerful even in a small role. The other soldiers aren’t played by younger actors in these flashbacks but by the older cast. Lee does his best to keep the camera away from their faces, but the juxtaposition of a young Boseman and the older guys can be distracting.
The story also brings in a trio of NGO do-gooders (Melanie Theirry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen) who have taken up residence in Vietnam to defuse bombs and dig up landmines. Jean Reno turns up as a shady figure who’s supposed to help the men smuggle the gold out of the country.
As the men move deeper into the Vietnamese jungle, they begin to squabble about the size of their respective shares. Mistrust develops and before all is done, Lee gives Lindo a wild soliloquy in the jungle as he battles with thick growth, his own demons, a venomous snake, and the historical weight of 400 yeas of American racism. In a way, this single speech does more to embody the damage these men have suffered than anything else in the film. Amazingly, Lindo pulls it off.
Will the men escape with the gold? Will they be double-crossed? Will others try to kill them?
I’ll answer only one of these questions. Others will try to kill them, resulting in gunfights and explosions of violence that reprise the war-time violence the men once experienced.
Those who expect every Lee film to speak its mind won’t be disappointed and those who are put off by the same trait will find much with which to quibble. Lee even manages to work Black Lives Matter into the film’s closing moments, giving the movie an even more topical boost — as if it needed one in this moment of intensely focused discussions of race.
No matter what the subject, Lee’s voice will be heard — and that may be why Da 5 Bloods is least interesting when it’s telling its story and most compelling when Lee does what he does best — shake things up.