Three for the price of one is usually a valuable bargain. But when it comes to Da 5 Bloods — the remarkable new film from Spike Lee — the film’s most distinctive strength is also its weakness: It is trying to be at least three kinds of movie at once.

Lest that sound like damning the film with faint praise, let me begin with some praise that is anything but ‘faint’: Da 5 Bloods is unpredictable, surprising, instructive, and wildly imaginative. Few of my 2020 moviegoing experiences — if I can call my home-theater isolation ‘moviegoing‘ — will remain as vivid in my memory as this one. Few will ignite a hotter desire in me for God’s justice to roll down. Few will inspire more constructive conversation and debate among my friends and favorite critics in years to come. In the eclectic harvest of 2020 feature films, Lee’s latest epic is one of the few I’ve seen so far that I would highly recommend.

This scene is several things at once, a dance party, a war-veteran reunion, a reference to another Vietnam War movie, and a snarky acknowledgment of what American Capitalism has done to the world. Similarly, Lee’s movie is multi-tasking.

But then, haven’t we come to expect this from Spike Lee? His films — Da 5 Bloods is Number 24 — rarely fit comfortably in any category. He’s proven that he can make a slick, thrilling genre movie: Check out Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster in Inside Man, for example. But he seems happiest when he’s free-styling, keeping the audience guessing about what kind of movie they’ve actually signed on for. And he seems to have turned a corner recently, cranking up the intensity with which he splices together varieties of storytelling, image-making, score settling, justice seeking, history teaching, and Gospel preaching.

Lee’s Oscar-winning 2018 feature BlacKkKlansman was an undercover cop thriller, a workplace comedy, a blistering expose of Trump’s racist agenda, and a satire that dared to imagine hilarious reversals of moments from The Birth of a Nation. It was arguably his strongest film since his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, but it also felt like he was beginning to establish a new genre: an incendiary hyrid.

And Da 5 Bloods is another in that mode. As Spike Lee Joints go, it’s triple-jointed.

Return with the Bloods to a Vietnam that is, at first, unrecognizable to them.

At first, it feels almost like one of those cringe-worthy paycheck parties like Last Vegas, Going in Style, Space Cowboys, or Wild Hogs. You know the films I mean: Veteran actors go through the motions of an easy script as if showing up for a charity event. Who knows which motivation rose to the top? The easy money? The camaraderie? The ego-boost of being on an all-star team? Here, the team of old pros comprises Delroy Lindo — who has always delivered forceful and memorable supporting turns, and who doesn’t disappoint here; stage veteran Norm Lewis; and The Wire‘s superstars Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr.

But they’re not alone: The star power is amplified by the presence of Chadwick “Black Panther” Boseman as a saintly soldier rising immortal from the grave of the Vietnam War. Most exciting for me is the inclusion of a young rookie — Jonathan Majors, star of my favorite narrative feature of 2019: The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

After about 20 minutes, it becomes clear that this is not just a flashy all-star game. It’s as ambitious a film as Lee has yet made.

Wartime flashbacks, like this one of “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman) — are formatted differently. That’s just one way Lee plays with our perception of past and present in this film.

How do I synopsize a film so multi-faceted and so busy? I’ll try.

Who are the titular five bloods? We have the four Vietnam veterans — Paul (Lindo), Eddie (Lewis), Otis (Peters), and Melvin (Whitlock Jr) — who joyously reunite at the beginning and set out to find the the Fifth Blood: Norm, who they admiringly call “Stormin’ Norman.” That is to say, they set out to recover his remains from the Vietnam wilderness where he fell in a firefight.

But there’s another way to read the title: In Norm’s place, we have the son of Paul — David (Majors). On this adventure, he’s the Fifth Blood: an inquisitive and meddlesome youngster who senses some of the real danger in the team’s mission, and who recognizes just how mercurial and mentally unhealthy his father — the PTSD-scarred “Blacks for Trump” Goliath of the group — really is.

Anyway, it doesn’t take long before word gets out about the secondary motivation of the Bloods’ quest. As Melvin exclaims in a moment of drunken enthusiasm, “There’s gold in them hills!” Yes, in the place where they survived their last traumatic firefight, they buried a stash of gold bars that they are now ready to claim. Eddie calls them “reparations” in respect for those who have suffered neglect and disrespect from both the American people and, worse, the government that has exploited and sacrificed them.

The Bloods are seeking different kinds of treasure in their return to haunted ground.

The Bloods’ journey back into Vietnam. And to locate the scene of their loss and their fortune, they charter a private boat ride upriver into the jungle. (You knew there would be all kinds of allusions — visual, musical, etc. — to Apocalypse Now, right?) Their adventures are episodic: They experience jarring flashbacks and sobering reunions. Their progress is rattled by run-ins with old enemies, complicated by entanglements with an NGO focused on landmines (Mélanie Thierry plays a flirtatious do-gooder), and complicated even further by an encounter with Otis’s old flame (Le Y Lan) and the revelation of a secret she’s been keeping. Making everything even more unstable is the volatility of a French agent (Jean Reno) who might help the Bloods translate their gold into money.

If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The narrative — a screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo that has been revised by Lee and Kevin Willmott (co-writer of BlacKkKlansman) — is a zigzagging line drawn on a map of themes, grievances, questions, and sermons.

And Lee delivers all of this in at least three modes of cinema, modes that clash as often as they cohere.

We get enough archival footage and footnoting here for a documentary on the exploitation of African Americans during the Vietnam War, where black soldiers were pushed to the front lines and died in vast numbers. We learn the names and faces of some of the most important black soldiers of the time, men who should not be lost to history.

In her review at Vox, Alissa Wilkinson celebrates Lee’s inclination to remind us of our own history. She highlights how, throughout his filmography, he

refuses to submit to a barrier between fact and fiction. Frequently, and especially in his more recent work (including Da 5 Bloods), he splices together montages of archival footage, news reports and speeches and moments we previously experienced on screens, reminding us that what we saw was both real and framed, shot for our consumption. Over time, history gets reduced to iconic images from newsreels and grainy pictures. By putting them in the context of his movies, Lee revives them, putting his films into a context that’s both cinematic and far bigger than cinema alone.

Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters give strong performances as troubled, wounded warriors.

We get an honest-to-goodness Vietnam War movie in a style somewhere between the earnestness of Platoon and the dark satire of Full Metal Jacket, with the genre-standard soundtrack of war-era songs. (I couldn’t help but recall Good Morning Vietnam as a reimagined version of the famously provocative Vietnamese DJ “Hannoi Hannah” — played by Ngo Thanh Van — speaks directly to American troops, stirring up trouble the way Robin Williams’ Adrian Cronauer sought to inspire them.) It’s snarky, at times, and prone to commentary on contemporary politics — David gets to land a particularly satisfying punch against Trump. But it also paints deeply empathetic portraits, revealing the fact that when these men were sent to war, they never returned — they were just relocated and assigned to lonely new wars and dehumanizing nightmares. This is where Boseman shines: As an apparition of the fallen “Stormin'” Norman, he is a disciple of both the Reverend Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and his testimony of grace and forgiveness is deeply moving.

And yet, there’s a third movie happening here — a meta-movie one that cleverly references earlier movies about the war and about fortune-seeking, and which gets downright stage-y as characters abruptly kick down the fourth wall and, with familiar Spike Lee bravado, start ranting to (or at?) the audience.

As every critic worth his or her salt has already noted, this goes beyond the easy Apocalypse Now references to become a 2020 take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But it’s also a recontextualization of Lee’s own Do the Right Thing — a sobering meditation on the myriad forms of prejudice and hatred; a bloody illustration of all that can go wrong when we let the injustices committed against us embitter us and incline us toward self-destructive acts of rage or self-indulgence. (In both films, Lee wryly observes that African Americans, rightfully calling out the evils of white supremacy, aren’t innocent of racial prejudice and hate crimes.) A pair of expensive sneakers slung over a wire is a direct visual reference to Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, creating an obstruction for the passage of the Bloods’ upriver voyage. And the humid, sun-burnt Vietnam jungles recall that vivid colors of Mookie’s heat-wave neighborhood.

Paul’s rage endangers everyone on this quest through nightmares. Similarly, Lindo’s huge performance threatens to upset the balance of this upriver boat.

It’s too bad that these moments of glory are intermittent, disrupted by several tonal missteps.

Lindo is the actor getting all of the attention here, but I’m not singing with the choir that celebrates his turn as the film’s highlight. Lindo has always given indelible performances — I’m particularly fond of unforgettable moments he created in Heist as well as his memorable role in Lee’s Clockers. Here, he dominates the film in ways that ultimately contribute to its imbalances hurt it. It isn’t his fault — it’s the role, which leaves the other four travelers fighting to make meaningful impressions. I wish an actor of greater range and nuance would have played the part of Paul; Lindo’s performance matches his physical proportions, which already overshadows everyone else. (What might Jeffrey Wright have done with this part? Or Forest Whitaker?)

Further disrupting the film’s coherence is its veering from comedy to suspense to shockingly grisly war-movie violence. My suspension of disbelief is frequently spoiled by the way the film asks me to keep interpreting its formal inventiveness, or to think about the connections between historical events and current cultural upheaval. I’m never drawn in to the characters’ interior struggles enough to experience their emotions with them. Thus, when violence breaks out, I’m thinking more about the practical execution (no pun intended) of the special effects and choreography.

Money changes everything, and Desroche (Jean Reno) sees both the risks and the rewards possible in the Bloods’ quest.

Contrary to some critics, I’m not troubled at all by Lee’s avoidance of digital de-aging effects — I think those would have introduced another jarring distraction (one that compromised another recent Netflix movie: Martin Scorsese’s otherwise glorious epic The Irishman). In fact, I think that having this cast of actors play younger versions of themselves in the wartime flashbacks is effective, reminding us that they are still very much trapped in those jungles, forever doomed to the fear and the horror of those injustices.

Still, for all of the disorienting tangents along the way, Da 5 Bloods is ultimately an enlightening experience for the education it gives its audience in untold Vietnam stories. What I might typically categorize as weaknesses in Lee’s cinematic artistry are, at the same time, exciting contributions to a far more urgent and important matter — namely, waking up Americans to a heartbreaking self-knowledge. Da 5 Bloods spotlights our need for humility and repentance for our crimes against global neighbors. It recommends the exercise of caution regarding the corrupting nature of wealth. It underlines the debt we owe to veterans, as they have go on paying a harrowing price for America’s crimes against humanity, crimes committed by American leaders and by the people who elected them (and are thus complicit). It’s a necessary reminder that America does not have the moral high ground on matters of international justice. We gave up that ground a long, long time ago.

Lastly, though, I must recommend this film for how Lee does not allow his camera to become paralyzed by the horrors or despairing in its focus. Lee refuses to let this be a simple act of payback, a rant against injustice. This isn’t just a movie about America: It’s a movie about human nature. His characters are complicated, flawed, and in some ways doomed to take their beleaguered selves from bad to worse, allowing their zeal for that buried treasure to divide them and, in some cases, conquer them. And just when he seems likely to deconstruct all hope, we get a supernatural speech from Stormin’ Norman, one suggesting the possibility of transcendent grace, a redemption found only in a vision that embraces eternity.

If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, there is redemption in the blood of Da 5 Bloods.

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