Released in 2020. Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, & Spike Lee. Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, & Isiah Whitlock Jr. Running time 2 hours 34 minutes.
*****SPOILERS****The film starts with archival footage of the Vietnam war, Black injustice, and Black Civil Rights leaders as well as war atrocities and presidents which fades into present day Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
In a hotel lobby, four friends reunite. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). The four friends party at a club later that night, dancing and drinking, and talking about their families and reminisce. They also talk about the state of the world. Paul is extremely sensitive to any Vietnamese people who come near him due to his PTSD from the war and reveals he is a President Trump supporter. Their guide Vinh Tran (Johnny Nguyen) arrives to get acquainted with the men and makes sure they have everything they need for their mission to retrieve the remains of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). They are also looking for the chest filled with gold bars they buried near Norman’s body.
Flashbacks to the war with the four men and Stormin’ Norman illustrating how Norman was killed and the backstory about the gold bars.
Back to the present, the group walks back to their hotel telling their guide stories about the war. Otis leaves the group to reconnect with his past love, Tien Luu (Y. Lan). She has become an exporter and has connections with someone who can help the four men get the gold back to the U.S. Her daughter Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) arrives home. It becomes clear to Otis, Michon is is daughter from his relationship with Tien during the war.
The next day, the four men and Tien meet with Desroche (Jean Reno) to talk about the deal getting the gold bars and Desroche’s fee for helping them. Paul doesn’t trust Desroche and let’s him know that. Otis tells the story about the gold bars and what they plan to do with it. After some heated language, the deal is set.
Upon arrival back to the hotel, Paul enters his room to find his son David (Jonathan Majors) has come to go on the mission with his dad. Paul and David have a strained relationship and it doesn’t help when David revelas he knows about the gold and wants a cut for helping. The guys aren’t too thrilled but realize they have no choice but to let him come.
The next day, they all leave for the jungle. Tien gives Otis a gun for protection which Otis hides from everyone. On the way to the jungle, the group takes a boat through through Vietnam and see things and people along the way bringing back memories and more PTSD for Paul. *Inter cut with flashbacks and tidbits with the Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo) radio program.* They make it to their destination village and get settled in. David heads down to the local bar where he meets Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) the French leader of a group called L.A.M.B. (Love Against Mines and Bombs) and her team members Simon (Paul Walter Hauser) and Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen). They hit it off but her two friends aren’t quite so interested their new friend. Hedy talks about her family history, land mines, and her groups mission to find and dispose of land mines. More drinking and reminiscing with the men.
The next day, the group heads off to the jungle. Tran makes sure they are set with gear and supplies, gives them the map to the rendezvous point, and leaves them. The group starts walking and singing Motown songs. Otis is slower due to his chronic pain. Otis stops to take a pain pill and the group gives him a bunch of crap about being addicted so Otis dumps his pills on the trail. Later that night, Melvin finds the gun hidden in Otis’ pack and Paul has a minor meltdown accusing Otis of double-crossing them.
The next day, the group walks complaining about being lost and Paul bitching at everyone. David leaves the trail to find a place to go the bathroom and strikes a gold bar while digging his hole. He yells excitedly and the rest of the men come down and they begin digging up the gold bars. After some time and a lot of gold bars late, they find the area where they think Norman was buried. They unearth his remains and pack up to head to the rendezvous.
They make it a clearing to take a break. Paul continues to give the group a hard time about the gold, Norman’s remains, and his distrust. Melvin responds by reminding Paul about what Norman taught them about money and how fed up he is listening to Paul complaining the whole time. Melvin does this walking backward, unknowingly sealing his fate…just then, the LAMB team shows up making Paul freak out and David steps on a mine. David is frozen while Paul and the team figure out a way to save him.
Despite David’s explanation, Paul forces David to tie up Hedy, Simon, and Seppo’s hands. Paul doesn’t trust anyone, so he takes them hostage on the trek to the rendezvous point. Later that night, they make camp. A tense moment between Paul and David makes Paul distrust David. Otis hits Paul with a walking stick and they get the gun away from Paul. Seppo makes a run for it.
The next day, the group makes to the rendezvous where Tran is waiting. When Tran asks where Melvin is, Otis lies and says he broke his ankle instead the truth. Tran is suspicious so he offers to send a rescue team. The group comes clean. Just then, a group of gun-wielding Vietnamese show up with Seppo as a prisoner. After a tense moment, the gold is revealed, and Otis tries to make a deal. Quan (Lam Nguyen) the leader of the gun toting group, reminds them of the Vietnam war atrocities his people suffered. *Inter cut images of the war.* Quan doesn’t want a deal, he wants it all. The shooting starts, people are killed, and the Vietnamese take off for reinforcements.
David gets shot in the leg. Paul becomes more disturbed, takes his pack of gold, and leaves the group to find his own way out of the jungle while the rest goes with Tran to the temple ruins. He descends deeper into his war PTSD and mistrust of his group while the others make it to the temple ruins and plan their defense. *Inter cut Hanoi Hannah with a record dedication.*
Paul gets tangled in some jungle foliage and his pack is left hanging in the trees…he untangles himself and leaves the gold. Back at the temple, the group prepares for the arrival of Quan and his men. Meanwhile, Paul stumbles upon the ghost of Norman who forgives Paul for his part in the war and Norman’s death. He is discovered by Quan and his men and is forced to dig his own grave. Paul refuses to give them any information about the rest of his group and meets his fate at the hands of Quan.
At the temple, Desroche, wearing Paul’s MAGA cap, shows up with Quan and the men. Hedy tries to reason with Desroche to no avail. Otis asks if Tien knew anything about the set up and Desroche says no. Otis gives him a backpack and walks away. The men discover the pack is full of rocks and the shooting begins. The group defends the temple and their gold. Desroche throws a grenade which Eddie takes care of. Desroche is decommissioned by David and those that remain head back to the city.
David reads a letter written by his father in case of his death giving David clarity about his father’s love for him. Back in the city, Otis reunites with his daughter Michon and money is donated to Black Lives Matter and LAMB. *Archival footage of Martin Luther King, Jr. ends the film and end credits begin with images of Vietnam and the cast.
What I Liked
The locations of the film were gorgeous and captured the contrast between the past and the present. I loved seeing parts of Vietnam from the men’s perspective and the Vietnamese. Like Tran says near the end, “After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends.” This film feels like proof of that.
There are a lot of references and homage paid to the Vietnam war and films and footage related to it–like the Apocalypse Now neon side, shots of helicopters flying in the scorching sun, the music while the men are traveling down the river…
The acting was quite good once they got things going; although, at times the scenes felt forced mainly during the moments of exposition dialogue and commentary about the war and civil rights.
What I Wished Was Better
I wish the story was the story and not an attempt to slap people for racial injustice and the horrors of war. Could be my white privilege talking or the fact I don’t like being preached to like I’m incapable of understanding Spike Lee’s message. I wanted to be in the moment with the four men and the most important quest of their lives not pulled out to see current footage of racial injustice and archival footage of the war and civil rights. While I think it was meant to prove a point, it felt more like a distraction. Like here I am getting emotionally connected to these guys while the person sitting next to me interrupts with pictures and stories about all of it. Save it for later, like in the end credits, so while the men’s story sets with me, the images of the war and racial injustice take me the one step further in the gravity of the past and current situation.
The dialogue was so full of exposition and generalities, it was hard to get into these guys at times. I get it’s been a long time since they’ve seen each other; but they went through a horrifying experience which should have bonded them forever, yet they turn on each other on the drop of a hat. The Paul character has so much PTSD, he attacks everyone verbally and made me question why he was even there. Probably out of mistrust of not “getting his share”. When Otis takes his pain pill, they all turn on him. When it’s discovered Otis has a gun, they all turn on him.
In the flashbacks, the four men are shown as their current age while Norman was young. This was to signify the four men are still haunted by these memories while Norman is the age at the time of his death. I would’ve preferred them all to be age appropriate. Throughout the film Spike Lee cuts in images from the war and racial injustice to drive his point but then expects people to understand the underlying message in the flashbacks?
I really wanted to like this film. I love films about war, vets overcoming the hauntings of war, and the premise of these four men returning to the very place which changed their lives forever. It felt more like the film was trying to “teach” me about civil rights, racial injustice, and the war instead of telling me the story of these brave men confronting their past and finding a way to make things right. I wanted to understand more about Melvin and Eddie; Otis and David–but so much time was spent on Paul and all of his BS, there was no time for anyone else.
Spike Lee is a tremendous filmmaker with the gift of story telling in a way which informs the viewer about relationships, inequalities of race, and his love for humanity through powerful yet entertaining films. Da 5 Bloods missed the mark for me. I watched it again to see if my initial feeling changed, it didn’t. The story of these four men and their mission could’ve been timely and timeless much like Lee’s previous films; however, the archival and present day real life footage cut in gets in the way.
Available on Netflix. Watch the trailer below:
Fun Facts: The five men characters are named after the five members of The Temptations and the groups writer Norman Whitfield. The film was originally about four white vets directed by Oliver Stone but it never happened. Years later, Spike Lee and his co-writer, Kevin Willmott, took the idea and rewrote with four Black vets in mind.