It begins as four 70-something men — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) — who served in the same squad in the Vietnam War return to Southeast Asia for the first time since the early '70s. They tell their guide (Johnny Trí Nguyen) that they're heading into the jungle to retrieve the remains of their fellow soldier Stormin' Norman (played in flashback by Chadwick Boseman), but their true plan is to uncover a repository of U.S. gold they discovered and subsequently had to leave behind all those years ago.
This soon develops into a brutal and bloody descent into the jungles of Vietnam ala Apocalypse Now, but it's also a riff on John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), a movie so often imitated that audiences who've never actually seen it still know it through osmosis. Despite its sprawling, 150-minute run time, Da 5 Bloods is as economically paced as Huston's landmark film: It slows down in the right places to flesh out its characters, it's punctuated by explosive action at the right times, and its transitions into flashback are deftly handled.
It's refreshing to see a cast of old-timers tearing into muscular material like this, but it's Delroy Lindo who walks away with the film. Paul is a bizarre contradiction, a black Trump supporter who grits his teeth in the face of his own health and mortality, and his MAGA hat carries with it a cruel irony, becoming a totem of violence that passes from one character to another. There's a moment late in the film when Paul separates from the group and, like Sierra Madre's Fred C. Dobbs and Apocalypse Now's Col. Kurtz, goes slowly mad alone in the jungle. Lindo delivers a monologue, never breaking his intense gaze with the camera, and it's one of those electric moments, both engrossing and fourth wall-shattering, that only Lee could pull off.
Da 5 Bloods is interspersed with mini symposiums on black culture, a staple of Lee's filmography, with discussions about Olympic track star Edwin Moses and James Anderson Jr., the first black Marine to receive a Medal of Honor. Lee bookends the film with speeches by Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, two outspoken critics of the Vietnam War, and in between he lets several songs from Marvin Gaye's 1971 masterpiece What's Going On express the anxiety and heartbreak of the era. Those historical figures recognize that, as black men, the Bloods laid down their lives for a country that considers them expendable, both as soldiers and as civilians.
This is not a subtle film, though criticizing Spike Lee for a lack of subtlety is akin to complaining about Michael Bay using too many explosions. What it is instead is a genre deconstruction full of fire and feeling and life, and as it whipsaws between broad comedy and extreme violence, it howls about the anger and brutality of America's past, and laments that nothing has really changed.