A new Spike Lee film is generally a cause for considerable excitement. From She’s Gotta Have It, way back in 1986, to Do the Right Thing and his recent renaissance with BlackKkKLansman, Lee has always been the master of righteous indignation, a director whose beliefs are right at the forefront of his work and who never backs down from uncomfortable truths. And of course, in the time of Black Lives Matter, his voice carries extra authority.
And now here’s Da 5 Bloods, released without much trumpeting onto Netflix. It opens like a documentary, complete with vintage footage of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X and shocking images from the war in Vietnam – indeed, the references come so thick and fast over the opening credits, it’s hard to keep up with them.
Yet, this is no documentary. The meat of the film is a story about four Vietnam veterans, who reunite to go back to their old battleground on a seemingly altruistic mission to recover the remains of their late comrade, ‘Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), buried somewhere deep in the jungle. But there’s another, less laudable reason for their return. Concealed near his grave is a cache of American gold bullion, originally intended to pay South Vietnamese allies. The four amigos, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jnr), see no reason why they shouldn’t collect that at the same time. After all, haven’t they paid for it in blood, sweat and tears?
At the last instant, they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who is cut in for a share. And off they go into deep jungle, assisted by a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and financed by shady French entrepreneur, Leroche (Jean Reno), in a story that openly references the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more specifically, John Huston’s classic adventure, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
As ever with Lee, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his vision, and it’s clear that his anger about the way black troops were used as cannon fodder during the war is the heat that fuels this adventure – but it also has to be said that much of what goes on in deep jungle feels decidedly far-fetched and at times (dare I say it?) a crushingly predictable take on The Pardoner’s Tale. We also witness flashbacks to the foursome’s time as soldiers, where the eponymous bloods look exactly the same as they do now and Norman, young enough to be their son. Of course, this is intentional (it’s them looking back on the events) but it’s a bold move that takes a little getting used to.
Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods is neither fish nor fowl. It could either have been a powerful documentary about the exploitation of black lives at a time of war, or a gung-ho rumble- in-the-jungle adventure, mixing laughter and violence in equal measure. With typical ambition, Lee tries for both with the result that neither strand feels entirely convincing. It’s also puzzling when a director with such a breadth of experience allows an absolutely risible plot point to make it on to the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.)
Da 5 Bloods has already been garlanded with high praise from several quarters, but for me, at least, it’s not up there with Lee’s finest work. What’s more, with a running time of two hours and thirty four minutes, there are sections here that feel more gruelling than they needed to.