We call it the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese characters in Da 5 Bloods call it “the American War.” That’s a particularly poignant phrase, and one that director Spike Lee uses to his advantage in crafting a film about how all kinds of American struggles — from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement to capitalism itself — are interconnected and ongoing. Like the treasure at the heart of Lee’s story, covering them up does not make them go away.

The treasure, tens of millions in gold bars, lies somewhere in the jungles in Vietnam. It was buried there decades ago by the title characters, five members of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. The money came from the United States and was intended to help fund the South Vietnamese government and their war effort against the Viet Cong. The plane carrying it went down, and was discovered by the five Bloods, who agreed to hide it and retrieve it after the war — payment, they reason, for their service in an unjust war they never wanted to fight on behalf of a country that never treated them with respect.

In the present day, four of the five men return to Vietnam ready to fulfill their decades-old pact. They are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). The fifth member of their crew, battlefield leader “Stormin’” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), died in Vietnam. Retrieving his remains provides the group with a cover story to return to Asia; a shady French businessman named Desroche (Jean Reno) agrees to launder the gold (remember, it technically belongs to the Vietnamese) in exchange for a hefty cut of the profits.

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The veterans find a very different Vietnam than the one they left; they walk along streets dotted with American fast food restaurants and party in a nightclub whose DJ spins records in front of a huge Apocalypse Now banner and a neon Budweiser sign. The war hasn’t been forgotten though; the Bloods’ local guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) talks about its impact on his family, and soon Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) arrives to help on the hunt for the missing gold — and to give us a glimpse of how his father’s deep emotional wounds were passed down to the next generation. The men’s travels in Vietnam also trigger flashbacks to their earlier tours, including bloody confrontations with the Vietnamese and even more painful moments such as when the Bloods learn, via a Hanoi Hannah broadcast, that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated.

Flashbacks can be a convenient storytelling crutch, but in Da 5 Bloods they’re essential not only to the narrative but to the themes as well, where returning to the site of this terrible trauma not only dredges up the past but reinforces Lee’s argument that violence begets violence in an endless cycle that’s almost impossible to break. Da 5 Bloods’ vets aren’t just haunted by their past, they’re doomed to relive it.

Lee differentiates Da 5 Bloods’ two time periods with a shifting aspect ratio. The Vietnam War scenes are tall and boxy, and the 2020 scenes are wide and letterboxed. It’s an easy way to keep track of the movie’s timeline, particularly since Lee chose not to replace or digitally de-age his cast during the young Bloods sequences. (He mostly keeps the camera trained on Boseman and pushes the other actors to the backgrounds and shadows). But the way the frame warps and stretches as Lee ping pongs through history also underlines his belief that war — every war, not just this one — irrevocably alters your point of view. In the case of Da 5 Bloods, it literally changes the way the film looks at the world.

It certainly changed Paul, who proudly declares himself a Trump supporter and wears a MAGA hat as the Bloods trek back into the jungle — and who can barely contain the rage and pain that’s haunted him since Vietnam. Da 5 Blood’s overt Apocalypse Now references — including the aforementioned banner, a replay of “Ride of the Valkyries,” and an ominous journey upriver — inspired me to come to this conclusion: Lindo’s impassioned performance is precisely what you always wanted from Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now. For whatever reason, Brando couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver. But now Lindo provides what will be remembered as one of the definitive portrayals of man succumbing to the horrors of war.

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Early in Da 5 Bloods, the characters complain about the lack of black representation in war movies, where guys like Rambo tend to dominate depictions of Vietnam. They wonder why they’ve never seen anyone onscreen like Milton L. Olive III, a Medal of Honor recipient who saved four other soldiers by falling on a grenade. Even as it interrogates the traditional rules of its genre, Da 5 Bloods remains an outstanding war movie about the values at the core of most great films of its kind, like honor and brotherhood. And Da 5 Bloods is also a great heist movie about the values at the core of all great heist movies, like greed and distrust. The friction between those two genres generates incredible tension as the story progresses.

If you want me to nitpick Da 5 Bloods, I can. I could argue that Boseman’s character feels too abstract and even mythic for a movie so grounded in real-world issues. I could say the French minefield sweeper played by Melanie Thierry feels more like a justification to interject more suspense into the story than a fully realized character. One casting choice foreshadows a plot twist that probably would have been more surprising with a different actor in a key role.

But I don’t want to nitpick. Da 5 Bloods is so bold and intense and full of ideas, that it’s very easy to overlook its minor problems — particularly now that the issues at its center have been thrust into the spotlight once again by the death of George Floyd. Lee couldn’t have known his movie about the Vietnam War would have been so timely in the summer of 2020. But the point of Da 5 Bloods is he didn’t need to know; it always would have been timely. Because the American War doesn’t end.

Additional Thoughts:

-The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is another obvious influence on this film. And it gets a very funny and appropriate shoutout at a surprising moment.

-I suspect some viewers will get frustrated by Lee’s decision not to cast younger actors as the Vietnam War-era Bloods, or to de-age them like De Niro and Pacino in The Irishman. While Lee’s choice to let the sixtysomething actors play themselves 50 years earlier might have been affected by budget, the sight of 2020 Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters in their Army fatigues reminds you that those scenes aren’t historical records, they are flashbacks — as if these men today are re-experiencing those horrible events all over again.

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