Da 5 Bloods is a film that owes an enormous debt to the classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it’s a really black version (which might seem a little racist, but I’m reasonably sure that was director Spike Lee’s intent). And we’ll delve into all of that soon, but, I feel like this film deserves a place in film history by replacing Deus ex Machina with a snake attack (Deus Ex Serpenta?). That is not exaggerated or made up at all, and I could write an entire essay about that, so get used to it. Which brings me to my first point; I feel very unqualified to judge this film due to my race and cultural background. Like, is fear of snakes a big thing with African Americans? I’d normally feel stupid asking a question like that, but this is the sort of film the CIA would use on captured Taliban members — it makes you question your sanity. And it is not a subtle film; the villains are white (French) and Asian (Vietnamese); our plucky heroes are black (Americans), and white (French, Finnish, and American), and also Asian (Vietnamese). Not subtle, but still mind-bendingly confusing (for that matter, if the film was meant to be a scathing indictment of capitalism, maybe don’t make the major focus on a literal treasure hunt?).
Which brings me to my first, major point; I’m not going to be able to accurately summarize this film because it’s far too weird and long to accurately summarize, which brings up my “Good/Bad” film opinion: it’s punishingly long. At two hours and 35 minutes, it just feels indulgent. I think there’s a great two-hour film somewhere in this, and an Oscar-worthy 100-minute cut. But even that begs questions associated with Apocalypse Now. This is another legendary film geek’s film, because no one’s fond of the original cut; the three-hour full-cut is slightly better, there’s a fabled/mythic four-hour cut supposedly hidden in some film editor’s vault. Is this bloated film a weird media-nerd meta-commentary on that film? Is Spike Lee watching me as I type this? Again, these are not questions I’d normally ask myself, but this film might make you reach for the Haldol (and, yes, there is a two-minute commentary on the opiate crisis — using those exact words — and I have to know; is this another big issue in the black community? Or is it a Baby Boomer thing? Is Spike Lee trying to make a point about some unknown, collective unconscious boogeyman? I MUST KNOW THE ANSWERS). Again, punishingly long, really confusing — a great experimental film, and I’m much happier to see Netflix paying Spike Lee to make really weird artistic choices rather than paying Adam Sandler to make another coke-fueled abomination of a comedy, but I won’t be rewatching it any time soon.
The basic plot of this very strange trip to meet Col. Kurtz (again; was it a deliberate choice to make a film that will inevitably be compared to Apocalypse Now, a work that, itself, was inspired by a scathing indictment of European colonization of Africa?) is that a squad of (black) Americans is shot down in 1967 in Vietnam whilst transporting gold to ensure good behavior from some local tribe (I didn’t think that was a thing; I thought the CIA just bought their heroin and/or acted as heroin brokers/transport to curry favor with local warlords). In a massive battle that ensues (the film has a weird flash-forward-flash-back style that recalls Pulp Fiction), one of the Bloods is killed, the others decide to bury the gold in a hillside along with their fallen comrade, and come back to retrieve both. Again; I have not seen combat, nor been to Southeast Asia, but, based on my experiences living in a rain forest in the Caribbean (yes, I did), literally fifteen minutes spent wandering the jungle would tell you that’s not a rational decision. Burying gold in a bandit-and-communist-infested jungle is right out. That’s okay, because there are enough weirdly-time action beats to make you stop questioning plot holes like, “Why would a seasoned squad of combat veterans think they’d live long enough to retrieve a butt-load of gold, let alone make retrieving it and then smuggling it out of a besieged country a good idea?” That’s not made up. People step on landmines, randomly flirt with strangers, visit old sex worker flames, and generally do enough random stuff to make the viewer ignore all the film’s flaws — not unlike M. Bay — right up until that snake attack moment (again; are snakes leaping out of trees a thing? Is the snake representative of white people? Satan?)(for that matter, is the gold itself a commentary on how the gold trade in the Americas choked off West African mineral exports, forcing them to increasingly rely upon slavery as an economy?). The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is, in broad strokes, a story about a small group of men who set off in pursuit of a legendary gold mine, find it, and mine it; slowly growing crazy and paranoid and killing one another off. It has a simple, direct thesis that’s still relevant today: Money changes everything, as the bard wrote. And be careful, you probably don’t know your friends as well as you think. I’m bringing that film up because Da 5 Bloods owes more, artistically to that film than Apocalypse Now.
This film’s greatest sin is in taking a fairly bare-bones, stripped-down plot, and then just adding seemingly random commentary. I say “seemingly,” because the film feels almost focus-tested to hit major aspects of the black American experience that I just can’t speak to, but in such a broad-reaching, shallow way that no particular issue is fully explored before the film lurches to the next plot point. Is father-son treasure hunting some sort of weird tradition in Atlanta? I’d identify with some of the father-son tension and commentary, but I’ve never aimed a gun at my father, nor he at me, and we’ve been camping (and, trust me, few things strain the filial relationship like spending 10 hours to get to the back country, then setting up camp in the cold and dark). I’d ask my black friends (folks, help a white boy out) about that, but “Hey, ever aimed a piece at your Pa and demanded that he untie the NGO hostages?” (yes, that happens) seems like a racially-loaded question. Also, since almost all of my black friends are from grad school; they’re likely middle-class STEM nerds, too, and probably as acquainted with the concept of random family-based gun violence as me. From a story-telling perspective, you know you’ve got problems when one of the 5 Bloods dies in the first half-hour, and is clumsily replaced by someone’s son just for that weird tension that only flairs up when it’s narratively convenient. I realize that the entire point of this film is to encourage dialogue between communities, but the metaphors and situations feel so specific. I can tell you with 10000% certainty the response I’ll get if I call any of my old grad school chums and ask, “Hey, did you ever accidentally step on a land mine, requiring your father and his old army buddies to save you using a very long length of rope and a really well-timed tug?” Frankly, that’s “Florida Man,” not “Black Man.” Which actually seems like a much better film; a racially-inverted version of Deliverance that explores the difference between urban, suburban, and rural (yes; they exist; 25% of professional cowhands in the 19th century were black) black communities.
And this film is just confusing and meandering (not unlike this piece describing it). One character (who, in retrospect, is possibly the film’s ultimate antagonist) degrades his son’s occupation as a black studies professor (the film uses substantially more-charged language than that), even though all of the characters in the film talk and behave like black studies professors. Unless all black folks have some weird, innate knowledge of random trivia about record-setting African American Olympics figures. There are moments when characters directly stare into the camera and proselytize about various issues, but never long enough or poignantly enough to make an impact (I realize I’m probably not the intended audience, but, I’m no longer sure who is — there are disjarring-but-cool asides into African American history, but, at the same time, the film whitewashes Martin Luther King Jr. from the man who said “A riot is the language of the unheard” — the MLK white people would rather forget didn’t exist — into the “I have a dream,” more-sanitized version we can all collectively agree upon)(in and of itself, is this a weird critique of historical revisionism?). Again, that two-and-a-half-hour play-time really hurts this film, because it allows the director to wander all over the place without making a point (not unlike what massive funding and complete creative control allowed G. Lucas to do to Star Wars in the prequels) — I think if Netflix stepped in and said, “Spike, we love you, but this is a 100-minute movie, maximum” it would have required a little more focus and coherence that this film badly needs.
Anyway, back to the film, Da Bloods sort-of reunite (“sort-of” because one of them dies in the first 20 minutes) in Vietnam in 2019 to go on a treasure hunt for the gold they buried, let me check… 50 years previously (Welp, there’s no way that gold could be completely gone after years of jungle growth, bombings, insurgencies, and general chaos!). Which, they sort of get to, after a lot of Tropic Thunder-style shenanigans; including one of them going completely mad and kidnapping NGO workers, main characters stepping on land mines (it’s a glorious mess of a film), and a random snake attack; two characters make it out alive (it’s almost worthy of an entire discussion as to how a film with the exact same survival-rate as a slasher movie is not an overt horror movie)(unless that was the point? Is Spike Lee trying to make a meta-commentary on how all warfare is a form of horror, but it disproportionately hits black communities?), and donate their profits to the BLM movement. Which is a nice, timely nod, but it’s beyond bizarre that in a two-and-a-half hour movie, the contemporary civil rights movement gets all of five minutes.
I’d ask my black friends to watch it and see if there’s something I’m really missing, but, y’know, two and a half hours? Everyone would be better served by spending that time at a protest, or calling congressmen. I also get that we need more black voices in America and media right now, and I’m definitely happy Netflix decided to fund this project instead of another regrettable comedy special, but I think Netflix has yet to find their go-to, $10–20 million indie film maker.