What's going on? With Marvin Gaye's protest music providing the jolting backdrop for Spike Lee's latest joint, Da 5 Bloods, the following question needs to be asked: What's ultimately going on with this interesting but only semi-satisfying look at four former buddies who served in Vietnam returning to the land that helped shape and destroy them simultaneously.
That former sentence is a long one, similar to the loose and winding nature of Lee's film. I personally thought Lee's last two films, Black KKKlansman and Chiraq, were two of the best of his lengthy career, a simmering stew mixing social justice issues with a solid story, a dose of humor and plots that propel the story forward, unlike some of his other films.
Da 5 Bloods certainly has the social justice element down pat. It tells the story of four former soldiers - all Black males and entering their twilight years - returning to Vietnam to bury the remains of their captain (played in flashback by Chadwick Boseman, breaking from the Marvel Universe to play an earthlier but reverential kind of superhero). There is a subplot concerning a quest for lost gold bullion that was buried in a thrushy Vietnam field, and another about the son of one of the former servicemen surprisingly joining the father to retrieve a portion of his lost youth.
Lee mixes in timely messages of class and racial divisions that keep the movie from floating away in a sea of over-crammed plotlines. He expertly uses historical file footage, a customary Spike Lee coda, and potent dialogue to get across the idea that black Americans were disproportionately sent to Vietnam in the 1960s to die or become truly battle-scarred, before returning to an America on fire with civil rights protests and racial division.
Those unlucky enough to have served in Vietnam, in Lee's minds' eye, were the castoffs from a society too busy to care about that. They were the sacrificial lambs in an America more distracted and intent on giving exemptions to wealthier white teenagers who could afford to go to college or find some minor injury that would prevent them from serving. The five servicemen at the center of the movie were conversely doomed from the outset, facing daily firefights while attempting to protect each other from the horrors they faced. Meanwhile, the righteous anger on the homefront was no less troubling, as cities exploded in blazes of fire and looting over broken race relations.
Lee expertly weaves in the parallel anger of the Vietnamese people who are scarred themselves when it comes to Americans. They witnessed atrocities from American troops razing villages and murdering civilians; Lee dredges up scenes of the bloody My Lai massacre and soldiers shooting Asian teenagers to make his point. There is a portion of the movie where the Americans are being bothered by a Vietnamese vendor who wants to sell one of them a live chicken while the Americans float peacefully on a river barge. As soon as the group's leader (Delroy Lindo) objects, the pleading Vietnamese vendor changes to a man of hatred, hurling epithets and accusations that Lindo's character he and others had killed the man's family.
The war is never over in Da 5 Bloods. Lindo's character fights PTSD, dueling with own personal demons from his time in Vietnam. A fellow blood, played by Clarke Peters, is addicted to opioids and regrets leaving behind the Vietnamese women he loved and a daughter he has not seen. Another survivor (Norm Lewis) has seen his business go down the drain. They are all ghosts in some ways, but they rally to find their revered former captain, who died in a firefight, in a tropical wasteland right out of a Joseph Conrad novel.
Speaking of Conrad, another Lee hallmark is the borrowing of images and ideas from other films. Apocalypse Now, based on Conrad's novels, makes an appearance in a shot of a helicopter flying over an orange sky and full moon in Vietna, and Lee borrows the quest of the black servicemen for Conrad's characters search for a mythic jungle figure. Spielbergian elements crop up right out of Saving Private Ryan, while the music - when not Marvin Gaye - is an epic, highly traditional movie score befitting an old war movie or Western.
Lee also evokes John Huston's great Treasure of the Sierra Madre for one of the film's major plot points. In that older film, four men in search of gold in Mexico end up fighting with each other and destroying their unity through hostility and paranoia. In Da 5 Bloods, there is another motivation for returning to the jungle: the search for gold bars that they discovered in the wilds, together worth millions.
They find the money and their captain's remains midway through the film but that is just the start of the story. It is also where the plot gets a bit muddled. What starts as a story of redemption and even delves into the idea of compensation for what the men had to endure becomes a tale where both interior and exterior forces conspire against that happier ending.
The idea of men fighting themselves due to hubris and greed is fine, and another old Hollywood trope that dates to the silents. However, Lee never lets the audience get inside the characters enough where we care about their futures or their need for reparations to honor their misspent call to duty. Much of the movie features gorgeous long shots, provocative jump cuts, camera dolleys over the landscape and a perfectly aligned score. But it is missing a bit of heart, redeemed some by the righteous anger and social predicament.
Lindo is the only fully formed character, and he is a bit addled and too angry to allow the viewer to settle too long inside his head. His son (Jonathan Majors, so good in the Last Black Man in San Francisco) comes along to have one last adventure with the old man, after a childhood spent neglected and scorned by Lindo after his mother died in childbirth. But he doesn't have another screen time to become the center of the story, even with a love interest and the added baggage of being an outsider to this world. The other characters also don't register as major players in the story.
And what becomes a plot that starts with a slow burn about the issues of racial tension and turmoil in the streets of America takes away that moral outrage when the men bicker and the Vietnamese "villains" of the film come a'calling. I'm not certain what message that is, but at least the ending is one of hope for future generations.
Lee's films, even the ones that are in minor key, are all worth seeing and leave one rapt at his skills behind the camera. His shot selection is always interesting, and Lee even uses a signature backward tracking device in one scene where the men are partying in a Vietnamese nightclub.
And the dialogue in his films, written by Lee and three frequent co-collaborators, is sparkling in places. Lindo has a monologue near film's end that is near perfection in its presentation, shot while he walks alone through the jungle and contemplates his life and death on his own terms and without others getting in his way. It is not only moving but reveals a lot about the humanity of lost serviceman who came home half-ruined by their emotional war wounds and their struggles for respect and dignity.
So, forgot that the film's plot is a bit of a muddle. Enjoy a master filmmaker and the movie's themes of grief and resolution. Revel in Lee's audacity. And discover for yourself what might be going on with this film under the surface of what is on the screen.