dir: Spike Lee
It’s what the world needed right now: A film about four African-American Vietnam veterans returning to the scene of the crime, like, 50 years later, in order to honour their fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), but really they’re there to get some gold they buried back in the day.
Not, just, like a little bit of gold, but a whole shitload of CIA gold, which is the worst kind.
The men are old but not completely broken down. Paul (Delroy Lindo) wears a MAGA hat and is generally paranoid, aggressive and annoying. Otis (Clarke Peters) is calm and charming, and somehow has a pony tail. Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jnr) is like a cuddly teddy bear who can draw out saying “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit” longer than anyone else in human history. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is just there. I have no opinion about Eddie.
1 of the so called 5 Bloods is clearly missing, and clearly died all those years ago, his life and his death having cast a pall over these men’s lives. They are getting together again presumably for the first time in a long time, in a city that had another name when they fought in the country. They fought in a country that didn’t really want them there, sent by a country at the time that clearly didn’t want them home either. It sent as many as it could to fight and die in a pointless war, and was brutalising the ones back home who were fighting for the civil rights of their brothers and sisters.
If you’re wondering whether this, a Spike Lee film, explicitly draws a line connecting the Viet Cong trying to fight for independence both from France and the US to the Civil Rights movement in the States, as almost to imply that they had more in common that they realised, well, yes, no-one’s ever accused Spike Lee of subtlety. There are these entire recreations of Hanoi Hannah reading out prepared statements on the radio specifically aimed at African American soldiers, trying to alienate them from the rest of the presumably “white” US Forces, by pointing out that they were 12% of the US population, but 35% of the grunts fighting and dying in the paddy fields. And even using the death of the very Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jnr to emphasise how much they were hated by their own government.
It’s a powerful point, a point far more powerful than much of the other stuff we got to sit through. This isn’t so straightforward a story that it’s about any particular thing. Not all of the characters actually exist that much, other than occupying space, saying things every now and then, and being looked at by other people. Others have more reality to them, but that doesn’t mean we actually enjoy their antics.
No, what I mean is that Lee, a veteran film director by now, doesn’t have shit to prove to anyone, but he sometimes still seems like he needs to prove stuff. He may have wanted to prove to some nebulous person, or Hollywood, that he can pull off big budget action stuff. I would humbly suggest that he’s already done that with Inside Man, which I caught on cable again just recently, and I’m surprised to say it still holds up (despite its patent absurdity).
He wanted to show he could do a war movie, but he’s done that before with Miracle at St. Anna, or a violent action flick, well, there was that ill-considered remake of Oldboy, which never needed to have happened. He’s made period pieces, docos, dramas, crime movies, even romances, arguably. He’s done it all.
Maybe he didn’t need to prove anything, maybe I’m just imagining it. He also packs in so many references to other movies here, including his own movies, that, on some level, I think he might have been taking the piss as well. Almost like he was deliberately making a schlocky comedy, just to show he could.
But its points about the war, about life for African-Americans still, surely aren’t intended as jokes.
It’s hard watching this kind of stuff at this moment, but this is the moment when this stuff is most important (I’m referring to the ending). It underlines what we already know, but sometimes it can still take your breath away realising how much on the surface this bullshit has always been; that when people bellow that All Lives Matter, they’re still saying that some lives should matter more than most.
The four men idolise Norman, because back in the 60s he inspired them socio-politically, and made them vow that when they eventually come back for the gold, they’ll use it to help the Black community, not just themselves. And they agreed to it, like the chumps that they were.
But 50 fucking years have passed since then. Times change. People change. Will they get the gold? Will they get out alive? Will they get out alive with the money?
Lee explicitly makes references to the John Huston film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, even down to having a character screech a variation on “We don’t need no stinking badges!” But instead of it being said by Mexican characters, or characters pretending to be Mexicans, it’s screamed by a Vietnamese chap who doesn’t think these chaps are entitled to their somehow-gotten gains.
And I think we, in the audience, are also somewhat conflicted. What the US did to Viet Nam was an abomination for the ages. I’m not even going to start because you either already know, and if you don’t know, you’ll never know. Gold that was meant to be given to bribe certain villagers or fighters to side with the South or the North is blood money, surely, but also surely the Vietnamese are owed. Owed for all the death and destruction, for the lives lost and the mutilation of so many to this day, the genetic damage to generations of people. Millions of landmines were laid there, and apparently, for this film’s purposes, are still active and taking lives and limbs to this day.
So I don’t know who “deserves” the gold in a fictional setting. The chaps that we spend time with feel that they’re owed, but honestly, come on. If they can get it, sure, do your best, chaps, but let’s not take the moral high ground.
The deliberately hardest to “like” is Paul, because he’s not only overbearing and flat out nuts, he’s an avowed Trump supporter, so he’s already calculated to rub us up the wrong way. And he does so, for nearly two and a half fucking hours. I have loved Delroy Lindo in a bunch of other films over the decades, but to say that I downright loathed his performance here would be an understatement. And it’s not because of the MAGA bullshit, because, honestly, would we ever think Spike Lee, THE Spike Lee would be a Trump supporter?
At multiple points in the film they poke fun at the Orange Klansman in Chief, which is neither here nor there. Having African-American characters defend themselves in bar arguments with strangers as to the embarrassment that is the presidency is kinda weird. I mean, I have no doubt that people across Europe mock Americans whenever they bump into them, but having them attack an African-American for the Trump years seems kinda…weird.
I can imagine hardcore German backpackers doing it, but not many other people who aren’t already arseholes. No, the problem with the Paul character played by Delroy Lindo is that it is painful and annoying watching and listening to him. The paranoia and PTSD stuff I get. How Lee and Lindo choose to represent this nonsense, by having him talking straight to camera as he grumbles through the jungle towards the end, honestly, it made me wish someone would kill him already.
Nutbar Paul has a son, David (Johnathan Majors) who forces his way into the expedition to find the gold, despite not being part of the group, and not really having had any way to have known where they would be, other than “Dad, you really need to change your password”. It’s so plot convenient, but the REAL importance is in having him resolve his longstanding issues with a parent who hated him all his life for the offence of having been born.
After all, all the gold in the world isn’t as important as having a violent ex-con father tell you he loves you in a letter you read after he’s gone. But David’s also there because these old fogies need some youngblood around, to carry stuff, and to have someone to explain the past to, ultimately for our benefit.
The best of the old fogies is Otis, played by Clarke Peters, a guy who’s name isn’t that well known, but if you ever spent any time watching the various tv series David Simon ever made, like The Wire, he’d be recognisable, since he played Detective Lester Freamon, a great character on a show filled with great characters. He’s great here as a crusty old fogey who hasn’t succumbed to all the crusty old fogey bullshit yet, like trashing women, young people, foreigners. He has ridiculously too much of a twinkle in his eye for anything and everyone, and luckily he uses his charismatic powers for good instead of evil.
He also, aside from the lure of the gold, has some other unfinished business in Vietnam, being an old flame called Tien (Le Y Lan), who has a daughter, don’t you know, and she looks like she’s about, I dunno, 30 or something, but it’s clearly implied right from the start that she’s Otis’s daughter.
Let’s put aside for the second that this means she would have to be like late forties early fifties for the timeline to make sense, but anyway, Tien describes the life her daughter faced in Vietnam as a biracial African-American / Vietnamese person, and, as you can probably guess, people weren’t kind to her growing up.
These issues can be put to the side for now, because then we have to get to the quest portion of the film, which is a bunch of old guys and one younger guy stumbling around the Vietnamese jungle. And as luck would have it they very luckily find evidence of the gold, and then they find where their fallen comrade fell.
But wait, is it really about finding Norman? I…couldn’t tell. I think they spun their cover story that they wanted to find their fallen comrade, but I didn’t really get a sense that they dug up his bones and dog tags for bringing back home, you know, along with all the gold. So while they talk about Norman constantly, in that Norman would have wanted this, Norman wouldn’t have wanted us to do that, Norman wouldn’t have fries with his burger or for you to have that hairstyle, but then one of them, the least consequential or memorable one, accidentally steps on a landmine, and both arms and legs disappear in a moment I’m ashamed to admit I pissed myself laughing at.
From then on, honestly, it was hard to take seriously before that, but it became even more so afterwards. I understand there are landmines there still, and kind NGOs are doing what they can to save people by having projects to find and safely discard them all, or help with prosthetics and such, but c’mon. It was used purely for what I can only imagine was a laugh.
It happens again a little later, and then it’s deadly serious, but it’s used as a teachable moment about the running prowess of one Edwin Moses (who?), as someone we’re meant to care about gets trapped on another landmine, and Lee uses it as a chance to lecture about something we didn’t know about that has nothing to do with the movie, really, let’s be honest.
Paul goes completely bonkers by this stage, or at least more completely bonkers, but gets bitten by a snake, and then sees a vision of Norman, who, might I add, is the best character in the whole thing not only because he’s played by the rightful king of Wakanda, but because he’s in the flick the least out of anyone, and thus gets less opportunities to embarrass himself.
And then he dies, and I kinda was glad, to be honest, because then at least he shut the fuck up.
I’m sorry, this end of the flick plays out like a bad 80s action flick, so it’s hard to take any of it seriously. I enjoyed parts of it, I loathed a lot of it, and I was bored and shaking my head a lot. It’s very sloppy, the kind of sloppy I would never have associated with Spike Lee. I loved some of the interactions between the main cast, mostly any time Clarke Peters or Isaiah Whitlock Jnr talked or did anything, because they have such a great manner about themselves, but so much else should have been excised or rethought.
There was also the staggering decision to have the old characters here play the young versions of themselves in 1968, but without even, like, makeup or hair changes, or without even politely asking Delroy Lindo to remove the large silver earring in his ear, or even hiding the fact that these guys who are meant to be 20, max, are not guys in their late 60s early 70s. I think maybe they thought they'd CGI the heck out of it, like in The Irishman, but clearly they eventually thought "fuck it.". There is a still image, of the 5 Bloods in their prime, and it's a image so poorly Photoshopped to try to make the contemporary actors look young, as in, they look like they've had clay smooshed onto their faces, or more Botox than a Real Housewives reunion. It's probably good that they didn't bother, because clearly they would have fucked it up even worse.
I will also say that there was another character who I thought was really great, being the young Vietnamese guide who looks out for them and even sides with them in their ‘final’ battle against those who would kill them, being Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), who plays a character so patient and understanding of these old jerks that the Dalai Lama himself would want to punch him in the face.
Of course, Spike Lee pulls off an ending which mixes irritation with an almost awe-inspiring clarity as to his political responsibilities (involving a jaw dropping payoff connected to Black Lives Matter, a phrase that these weeks has resurged to such horrible, necessary emphasis) and that honours these characters, many of whom didn’t deserve it, but he honours them nonetheless. I don’t know that Da 5 Bloods honours what African-American soldiers did in Vietnam in any way that actually matters in terms of the people they killed or the reasons they died for, but it at least acknowledges that their experiences would have been somewhat different from the usual ‘broken patriot’ stuff with those who came home, and those who didn’t.
I can’t say it was an enjoyable way to spend 14 hours, but I’m still glad it exists. These people need to eat too.
6 Bloods out of whom only 1 will make it home out of 10
“We fought in an immoral war that wasn't ours for rights we didn't have.” – and worst of all, then we had to hear about it endlessly – Da 5 Bloods.