Gold is a recurring symbol in American cinema, a useful stand-in when directors want to establish a dialectic between self-interest and sociality. Spike Lee makes knowing and witty use of this history in Da 5 Bloods, most obviously when a Vietnamese criminal informs the protagonists that he and his crew ‘don’t need no stinking official badges’. However, Lee is not just re-running the themes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (to which that line is a reference): he’s out to examine the corrupting influence of money through the prism of race. When a deprived and oppressed minority is forced to compete for an inadequate pool of resources, wealth becomes one of the instruments of their coercion, a splitting wedge in the divide-and-conquer toolkit.
It’s not all about the money of course. This is a typically ambitious ‘joint’ from Lee, which also takes on the legacy of Vietnam, ageing, friendship, loyalty, colonialism, white-saviour NGOs, father-son relationships, the bizarre phenomenon of the Black Trump voter, mental illness (the last two are not unrelated), and other issues. Da 5 Bloods has received widespread acclaim, and in terms of the cinematography, editing, acting, and some of the dialogue this is well deserved: it’s a very well-made movie, and some of the performances are stunning, especially Delroy Lindo’s portrayal of a PTSD-sufferer coming apart at the seams. The reunion of four ageing Vietnam War veterans is well-handled, and the way their past is established, with their not-quite nostalgia for a time when they were young and the times were exciting (if also terrifying and horrific), is beautifully nuanced.
However, the film goes through some radical tonal shifts—the sort of thing that can look very hip and generically playful if done right—which jarred for me, and undercut the story Lee appeared to want to tell. The former comrades return to Vietnam, looking for the remains of a buddy killed in action, and also for a large stash of gold which they concealed in the jungle, and once they’re into the nitty-gritty of the search, Lee switches to a kind of lightweight action-adventure mode—which is to say he makes no attempt to portray danger and violence with any kind of credibility. At the same time he illustrates this hokey narrative with extremely graphic representations of injury, the kind of thing that fits well when a picture is attempting to show violence naturalistically, but which felt completely gratuitous in a cartoonish gunplay fantasy—and the overall tone is too emotionally committed, insufficiently distanced or ironic, to read in the same way as the aestheticised bloodletting in a film like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Some of the dialogue is also lacking in credibility, seemingly present only to insert particular ideas or plot points into the narrative. Again, this didn’t come across to me as post-modern wit: it felt more like lazy inattention, the sort of thing that lesser directors do when they’re in a hurry to get to the action. Lee isn’t a lesser director though, and this film never feels like it thinks its action sequences are the point, or that its characters are just a pretext for some running and shooting. It just felt like Lee had taken a major mis-step. The kind of mis-step that… gets your film critically acclaimed and tipped for the Oscars, so I guess it’s me that’s out of step with the times.
Perhaps Spike Lee is just a cinematic saint, and nobody’s going to criticise him. It’s true that he does incredibly important work in terms of representing Black history and experience, in this film as much as in others, but I can’t help feeling that those underrepresented voices would be better served in a film which didn’t trivialise some violence and some suffering. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to Lee’s decisions about when to play it straight here and when to goof off, and the result is a film which is still ablaze with creativity and intensity, but which usually comes off as a bit incoherent.