The project gives Lee the chance to school us on a subject rarely tackled head-on in the movies, the impact of the Vietnam War on African-Americans — who, we’re told, made up almost a third of those who fought for the United States despite being only 11 per cent of the country’s population.
The set-up is complicated, recalling old-fashioned political cartoons where everything comes with a label. The war is shown in flashback; half a century on, a quartet of old army buddies (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr) return to Vietnam with unfinished business in mind.
The Bloods, as they call themselves, are bent on recovering literal buried treasure — a stash of gold bars abandoned after a plane crash — and the body of their fallen comrade and guru Stormin’ Norm (Chadwick Boseman), a revered figure they compare to Malcolm X or Martin Luther King.
Norm is replaced in the present by a new fifth Blood: David (Jonathan Majors), estranged son of Lindo’s character, Paul, who insists on joining the expedition. Paul, for his part, remains the hothead of the group — and the only one to have voted for Trump, referred to as “the Klansman in the Oval Office”.
As usual, Lee seems willing to throw in any hot button theme, contrived plot move or flashy stylistic device that comes to mind. This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach can be his strength, but while Da Five Bloods doesn’t entirely lack heat, it never really gets cooking.
Staged mostly in unfussy wide shot, the ensemble scenes are oddly shapeless. Dramatic interest centres on the relationship between Paul and David, but this sort of conflict between heavy father and rebellious son is among the most overworked set-ups in American cinema.
Another Lee hallmark is the habit of weaving documentary elements into the fiction: here, a lengthy prologue composed of archival footage kicks off with an interview with Muhammad Ali, one of America’s most famous conscientious objectors.
Curiously, though, just as many of the reference points are drawn from earlier Hollywood movies. Allusions to Apocalypse Now are frequent enough to be a running gag: one that falls largely flat.
With their saturated colour and narrow aspect ratio, the flashbacks have the look and feel of an 1980s action blockbuster on VHS: perhaps Lee was aiming to evoke televised news footage, but this is hardly consistent with Terence Blanchard’s brassy score.
Other moments are shocking in a way that verges on absurdism. Here, too, it’s unclear just how much of the effect is intentional: the actors don’t always seem sure how to navigate the more bizarre turns, which they’re sometimes called on to shrug off almost as fast as they occur.
Despite appearances, Lee has never been a straightforward “message” filmmaker. Rather, his films tend to deliver multiple contradictory messages, which suggest the complexity of a situation even when his characters are cartoonish types.
But what Da 5 Bloods has to say about Vietnam is a matter less of dialectic than double bind. Like so many American filmmakers before him, Lee is bent on condemning the war while paying solemn tribute to those who fought.
To smooth over the gaps, he and Willmott rely on a lot of corny philosophising, of the kind that could just as easily appear in one of the Rambo sequels: “After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends.” As Da 5 Bloods meanders on well past the two-hour mark, viewers may start to feel this hits a little too close to home.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.