Four former soldiers return to Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, five black men serve together in the US Army: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and their squad leader ‘Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Dubbing themselves the “Bloods,” the five secure the site of a CIA airplane crash, finding that it’s full of gold bars. Thinking about the state of black people in America, they decide to bury the gold and retrieve it later for their own gain. Unfortunately, a bombing kills Norman and destroys the area, preventing them from finding the gold before they go back to the USA.
Decades later, the four survivors reunite in Vietnam in order to track down the gold after a landslide uncovers part of the plane. They are tailed by Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), who joins the group along with their guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn). Otis also discovers that his Vietnamese flame Tiên (Lê Y Lan) was pregnant when he left, leading him to meet his daughter Michon (Sandy Hương Phạm) for the first time. Tiên also puts Otis in contact with Desroche (Jean Reno), a French businessman who agrees to buy the gold from them. David meets Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a French woman who runs a landmine removal group, and her two assistants Simon and Seppo (Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen). As the group makes their way into the jungle, tensions start to run high, and money never tends to make that better.
I call this Spike Lee’s Apocalypse Now not so much because there are a lot of similarities with that film, but because this film is really long and set in Vietnam and I’m sure will be given awards and critical acclaim out the wazoo. This isn’t to say this film isn’t worthy of praise, it is an absolutely amazing film, but by Spike Lee standards, this is not his best work. I think the biggest indicator of that is how much the phrase “most ambitious work” is being used to promote it, rather than best. The film is definitely ambitious, but that doesn’t mean it is flawless. It does a good job telling the story and it does a good job trying to do social commentary, unfortunately it doesn’t do a great job of doing them together. Instead, it feels like the story is periodically interrupted for a clip of Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo) telling US soldiers, particularly the African-Americans, about how abusive the US is to its own citizens, or some other short segue about race in America.
It’s pretty easy to see why this is when you take a look at the film’s history. This movie was originally written for Oliver Stone to direct, I guess as a fourth entry in his Vietnam series, this one taking place long after the war was over. However, after Blackkklansman was released, the film was given to Spike Lee, who rewrote it to be about African-American soldiers during Vietnam. So, the initial bones likely didn’t have any of the civil rights messages that the final product had, which might be why they feel a little more tacked-on than scripts that Lee started himself. That doesn’t make the messages any less valid, and maybe the fact that they kind of interrupt the film makes them more impactful, but I admit that once you’re 60 minutes into a 150 minute movie, you don’t really want a cut-away. It may just be that I have a gap in my movie knowledge, but I think this might be the first Vietnam War film which is focused entirely on black soldiers. Given that over 7,000 black soldiers died in Vietnam, over 10% of the casualties, that absence is more than notable.
The movie is a nice blend of genres, too. Aside from the war movie elements, the film also includes a decent amount of comedy between the leads (to be expected from Lee and Kevin Willmott, writer of C.S.A. and co-writer of Blackkklansman) and a heavy dose of heist movie staples as the plot moves forward. As with many heist films, getting to the prize is only the first half, getting away with it is the real challenge. The movie pays homage to a number of other films, mostly classic war movies, in ways ranging from soundtrack to cinematography, but it also decides to subvert the tropes of those films by being less dramatic and more just plain brutal with its violence.
The performances are all amazing in this film, but I will have to say that Delroy Lindo seems to do a lot of the heavy lifting. He plays a black conservative, which already puts him at odds with his fellow Bloods, who has PTSD and a son that he barely talks to. The range of his character traits allows him to have emotional scenes that the others just don’t get. I will also say that, while his role is limited, Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Norman is unbelievably memorable. The cinematography highlights the beauty of Vietnam, but also shows us how devastating the war was to its people and geography.
Overall, this is a really well-done film. I may not put it up at the top of either Vietnam films or Spike Lee films, but it is definitely one of the best movies that has come out this year.
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