The Vietnam War supposedly marked the end of an era for the United States–so, too, did the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Yet the effects of that time in history continue to hold sway over the events of the present, none more clearly than in the lives of Black Vietnam War veterans. It wouldn’t be Spike Lee if this week’s film didn’t examine the events of the past in the context of the present day in an effort to unravel the interconnectedness of white supremacy, violence, greed, and imperialism.
Da 5 Bloods
Decades after serving in the Vietnam War, four veterans return to the Vietnamese countryside to retrieve the remains of their fallen leader…and a secret fortune in gold bars.
Though 45 years have passed since US troops left Vietnam, the war continues to loom large in the lives of the remaining 4 Bloods of our film’s title. Returning to Vietnam to recover the remains of their lost leader, the heroic Stormin’ Norman, the 4 veterans anticipate a much less dangerous trip this time around. But there are more dramatic secrets and stunning betrayals here than on daytime TV, making this reunion–and film–an adventure story; admittedly, an adventure story that maybe could have cut out one or two interludes and still remained satisfying.
The main concern of the Bloods is to bring Norman’s body home; however, who’s to say they can’t multi-task? During their final mission together, the 5 Bloods opted to hide a chest full of gold they were instructed to return to the US government. Under Norman’s guidance, though, the 5 Bloods decided to claim it was lost to North Vietnam forces with the intention of returning to take back the gold as a form of reparations. Before they could return, the area was napalmed–and now that a landslide has uncovered the plane marking the spot, retrieving the gold may just be in reach.
Who exactly is part of the crew? Otis is a compassionate former combat medic who is in for a big surprise; when he pays a visit to his ex Tiên, Otis learns that he is the father of her grown daughter. Through Tiên, Otis is able to arrange a meeting with Desroche, a Frenchman who, despite being shady as shit, may offer the only option for the Bloods to get their gold out of the country.
In contrast, Paul is a loyal Trump supporter (complete with MAGA hat) with anger issues exacerbated by PTSD. Having watched the legendary Stormin’ Norman die, Paul carries a great deal of guilt, and is haunted by visions of Norman at night.
Eddie is an upbeat car salesman who has made a small fortune with his business savvy. And Melvin is just kind of there to be the 5th blood? I’m going to be honest–the character development for these two is somewhat lacking.
Our modern day 5th Blood is a surprise to the others; upon hearing of Paul’s plans to return to Vietnam, his son David arrives to stop his father from doing anything too outlandish. Because of Paul’s PTSD and the early death of his wife, his relationship with David is tortured, to say the least.
As the group treks through the Vietnamese countryside, they reminisce about Stormin’ Norman’s heroism as a leader, knowledge of untold Black history, and strategic brilliance in keeping the Bloods alive. At a bar, David meets a woman he mistakes for American, but turns out to be Frenchwoman Hedy. Hedy is the founder of a non-profit, LAMB: Love Against Mines and Bombs. So she essentially spends her days trekking through the country, defusing landmines to atone for all of her family’s criminal behavior and war profiteering in Vietnam. There is chemistry between the two, but they go their separate ways…for now.
Things are rolling along fine until the Bloods do manage to accomplish their mission and find Norman’s remains, along with the gold. Much debate begins about Norman’s intentions for the gold–is it acceptable for each of the Bloods to hold onto his share or should the money be donated to charitable causes?
All of this becomes of secondary concern when the Bloods find themselves in a literal minefield, the LAMB volunteers witness more than they should, and a double cross that shouldn’t surprise you at all leaves the Bloods fighting for their lives. And there’s still about an hour left!
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
The film is framed by words from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr, both of whom reflect on the injustices faced by Black Americans who served in Vietnam. There’s a clear parallel to the unjust war perpetrated against the Vietnamese people from the 1950s-1970s with the persecution of African-Americans in the US then and now. It couldn’t be a more timely message from Spike Lee, who uses historical images and footage for dramatic effect and, in one humorous instance, points out that one Black guy who appears in Trump rally footage to “prove” that the Black community supports the man Lee often refers to as Agent Orange.
I enjoyed this film a lot, but, to be honest, the story is a bit flimsy. Unpacking the events of the past and the evolution of the relationships between the 5 Bloods is fascinating, but things get a bit messy and confusing with the plots involving Otis’s daughter, the LAMB crew, and the maneuvers of Desroche. Not to mention that, at 2 1/2 hours, it’s difficult to imagine there isn’t something that could have been cut.
As other reviews have highlighted, Delroy Lindo does phenomenal work here. Paul often treats even his friends and son terribly, but he uncovers enough of the character’s trauma for us to sympathize. And when he’s not sympathetic, he’s still compelling and so watchable, and gets some of the most Spike Lee-esque lines and moments.
In contrast, I found the only 3 named female characters to be pretty unremarkable. I expected at least one of them to be involved in underhanded schemes, but all were much too naive and one-dimensional for that. I get that David and Hedy were meant to have a connection, but I don’t know if I’d be quite as wiling to forgive and forget in her shoes (even though Jonathan Majors is keeping those arms in good shape and most likely about to be in all of the roles). The same is true for Tiên and her daughter–it feels like their only purpose is to embrace Otis with open arms, but I think some nuances would exist there, and the opportunity to reflect those is missed.
One of the most fascinating approaches of this film is the avoidance of using younger actors or any sort of aging effects during flashback scenes–all 5 of the Bloods appear the same in both present and past scenes. This works for me as a reminder that the story is about the present as much, or perhaps more than, the past. It also serves to recognize that memories are brought forth in the context of the present; they don’t stay the same across time, but are altered by time and our experiences.
Perhaps not a new favorite, but a compelling story well told.