A horrific, accidental but long-time-coming moment in history gave Spike Lee this stage at this moment. He has a big movie about Vietnam, Black History, racism, greed and rage coming out just as most of those subjects are coming to head in a nation roiled by protests.
But that movie had to be an epic-length, cringe-worthy riff on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” It had to be a sermonizing, dawdling, cluttered and cornball homage to every Vietnam War ever made, movies which characters in his own movie ridicule.
It had to have the single dumbest “land mine” scene in all of cinema.
A tip — don’t make fun of Chuck “Walker: Texas Ranger” Norris’s godawful “Missing in Action” movies if making “Miracle at St. Anna” and oh, re-watching “Apocalypse Now” are your chief preparations for going “in country” yourself.
“Da 5 Bloods” is about old comrades — Delroy Lindo, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis — reuniting in Vietnam almost 50 years after their service there. They have unfinished business.
Their cover story is they’re here to recover a fallen comrade, “Stormin Norman” (Chadwick Boseman), the squad leader they left behind on a combat mission that went wrong long ago.
The real story — which this script has them blurting out to a whole lot of unsavory characters (Jean Reno among them) — is that they buried CIA gold they found during their service.
Why they waited fifty years to come back, hike into the jungle and dig up 600+ pounds of gold bars that they’d then have to tote out of said jungle is a mystery.
The characters? They’re not mysteries at all. They’re “types.”
Eddie (Lewis) is the wealthy owner of car dealerships, Otis (Peters of “The Wire” and “John Wick”) is hobbled with age, Melvin (Whitlock) is the hard-drinking ex-grunt who always kept his head down and did his job, with a kid who just finished high school.
All of them have to be 70 or so, but late start, I guess.
And then there’s Paul (Lindo), the touchy, haunted one. “I see ghosts,” he confesses. He’s a walking trigger warning, and he’s got a grudge.
“We got back from ‘Nam, we didn’t get nothing but a hard time.”
He wears a MAGA hat, held onto his “gook” bigotry, and won’t hear any talk about what HE should do with HIS share of this gold. And then he son (Jonathan Majors) tracks him down to join their merry band on its quest.
“We could be Bloods, one more time!”
The script shoves as much of “The American War” (as they call it in Vietnam) experience — much of it seen in earlier movies and TV shows — as it can into their visit. They hit a bar named “Apocalypse Now,” where one of them gets drunk enough to get chatty and LOUD about what they’re doing there, one discovers he has an Afro-Asian daughter. There are noisy confrontations with peddlers and panhandlers over what “they” did to “my” country.
And then they take a river journey, cruising along to “Ride of the Valkyries” and every ’60s rock and pop song associated with the war and especially movies about the war.
The quest opens old wounds, reveals PTSD, and then things go wrong in assorted too-predictable ways.
The ex-soldiers take on combat wariness like muscle memory, and when the chips are down, it all comes flooding back with them, along with the adrenaline.
The cleverest conceit here is the way Lee handles the flashbacks. The old men remember themselves, as they are now(70ish), in country and in combat with “Stormin’ Norman,” who fills their down time with lectures about African American history — from Jamestown and Crispus Attucks onward.
“He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” one Blood remembers.
The film opens and closes with Lee’s montages about the State of America “then,” and the State of America “now.” These are the best sequences in this simple, overscripted, stumbling movie — Muhammed Ali’s statement about the draft and Neil Armstrong on “Da Moon,” included. Little bits of history, this real-life decorated vet, that real Bobby Seale speech, decorate “Da 5 Bloods” and give it some heft.
But Lee’s like an old boxer who remembers his game, but telegraphs his punches and bores you to death talking about the punches he’s about to throw.
Nothing here arrives as a surprise, from the clumsily-foreshadowed action beats to the insane “Sierra Madre” monologues.
The stilted dialogue is a mashup of topical “Klansman in the Oval Office” riffs, and exhausted expressions of bonhomie and “get some BARbecue up in here.”
The criminally under-employed Lindo goes full Humphrey Bogart in “Sierra,” so much so that nobody else save for the jovial, foul-mouthed Whitlock makes an impression.
Boseman is barely in it, even in the flashbacks.
What we’re left with is a stark reminder that, “BlackKklansman” aside, it’s possible to agree with most everything Spike Lee says in his movies these days while lamenting the decline in his storytelling skills and his unwillingness to edit them into sharper focus.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., Norm Lewis, Clark Peters, Jonathan Majors
Credits Directed by Spike Lee, script by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmotand Spike Lee. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:35