Spike Lee has shown up with an insurgent filmic uproar to match the uproar in the world. Da 5 Bloods is a paintball gun loaded with real bullets: a blast of satire and emotional agony about race and the American empire, the evergreen wound of Vietnam, African-American sacrifices on the field of battle, and the fact that black deaths matter.
It’s an outrageous action painting of a film, splattering moods, genres, ideas and archive clips all over the screen – with many a Brechtian-vaudeville alienation. It feels sometimes like an old-style war movie such as The Dirty Dozen but maybe Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, with playful riffs on Hollywood Vietnam standards and even John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movie tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be a gentle, bittersweet picture about middle-aged guys with giant guts and prostates sadly coming to terms with their past, and the importance of letting go … and then it detonates a shock of fear and greed, which itself is always verging on action-movie melodrama and farce. It’s all so inventively bizarre that you could treat it simply as a black comedy, but in the final 15 minutes there is an amazing crescendo of emotion.
The bloods of the title are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis), four ageing Vietnam veterans who have returned to south-east Asia on what appears to be a luxury vacation trip down memory lane. All four are haunted by the memory of their squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who died in action before their eyes and whose memory they have romanticised.
Lee creates flashback combat sequences for the five men, but without Irishman-type youthification for the four survivors. They appear in the past the way they are now, as sweaty, out-of-condition and very scared old guys in the jungle, surreally led by the impossibly handsome young Boseman who has grown not old as they that are left grew old. He was and is their leader; Lee shows us that he now looks like their son. And this is especially powerful when they hear about Martin Luther King’s assassination from the communist Radio Hanoi announcer (Van Veronica Ngo), and Norman angrily tells his men to ignore her recommendation to mutiny because they owe their racist commanders nothing.
Yet the four guys’ reappearance in Vietnam now is even more complicated: they are convinced they can recover a secret cache of US gold bullion intended to pay South Vietnamese troops, which they found in a burnt-out plane and had to abandon. And Paul, a recent Trump convert in a Maga cap, finds nothing therapeutic in their journey into the past. He gets more and more disturbed.
Lee has taken the battle-scarred old movie trope of Vietnam and found something relevant and intersectionally complex: black people, because they largely didn’t have the contacts or resources to avoid the draft, or to finesse the avoidance of dangerous frontline duty, found themselves engaging the enemy and being a major though under-reported part of the Vietnam story. Paradoxically, it meant taking on oppressed people with whom they had no quarrel – that is, those people that Mohammed Ali famously said had never tainted him with the N-word – but also feeling ambiguous and conflicted about warfare, patriotism and America itself. They had fought, sacrificed and felt proud.
All of these ideas and feelings swirl around in Da 5 Bloods, knockabout rhetoric mixed in with grandstanding sentimentality and action, right up to the old-school “curtain-call” credits, like something from The Great Escape. There are some uproarious war-movie-type flourishes, including a graphic shot of what happens to a snake when you shoot at it hysterically with your M-16 assault rifle. Lee mixes up the tone and mood, and, with the knowing cinematic references and consciously contrived scenarios, it’s possible to feel detached or amused or bemused. But all that paves the way for the final 10 minutes, in which Lee brings in an outpouring of sadness and grief and determination that is almost overwhelming. For all its craziness, Da 5 Bloods finds an operatic anguish and yearning.
• Da 5 Bloods is on Netflix from 12 June.