Fifty years ago, four black American soldiers had been stationed in Vietnam and suffered as so many did from the conditions in the war there, so what has brought them back now, all these decades later? They meet up in a hotel in Saigon and are delighted to see one another, that camaraderie that troops feel having been through a harrowing experience buoying their interactions, but a lot of time has passed, so will they be the same people? Certainly Paul (Delroy Lindo) stands out as a supporter of the current President Donald Trump, not a popular choice among people of colour, including his old comrades, but they are willing to put his right wing tendencies down to his past trauma...
Director Spike Lee was riding the crest of a wave of renewed interest in his career after his Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman, and his next project was much anticipated. Alarm bells began to ring for some when he went to Netflix for funding for it, having been turned down by the other major studios that would have given a movie by him a cinematic release, though as it turned out this was fortuitous since the theatres around the world were closed thanks to the coronavirus when it was due to come out, so audiences with the streaming service could watch it there. Critically, the film did pretty well, with some very favourable reviews - but those audiences were far less impressed with the results.
Perhaps the trouble was it came across as if Lee had been disturbed by so many studios turning Da 5 Bloods down, so when he did get a chance to complete it, he went about it as if he would never get an opportunity to direct again. It was a pity, but this effort smacked of desperation in a way his previous had not - that had been brimming with confidence, yet here there was too much that was frankly sloppy in its endeavours to get its political points across, much of it in the plot. The script, it was no secret, had been adapted from an existing screenplay that was a tribute to John Huston's cult classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but all the racial issues were too obviously bolted on.
Ideally, Lee would have made a hard hitting drama about a group of black GIs returning to Vietnam after half a century to face their ghosts, and from certain angles that is what he had done, it was just that the thriller plot with the buried gold they wanted to retrieve was so perfunctory as to be unintentionally risible. This was a film where the quartet (and Paul's hanger-on son, Jonathan Majors) went downriver to find the location of the treasure, but then eschewed other vehicles to tramp across the countryside, this when they were meant to be in their seventies and none of them looking at peak physical fitness. When the son finds the gold by chance when he goes to take a shit, you did wonder if Lee was spoofing us or his influences somehow, yet it appeared to be just as sincere as the rest of it.
The age was a problem again when Clarke Peters as Otis meets up with the Vietnamese lady (Y. Lan) he had a child with, and she looks at least twenty years younger than him, while the daughter looks around her late thirties at most, all of which puts some most unsavoury ideas of Otis's morals in your head, doubly unfortunate when he is supposed to be the most decent member of the group. That the film went out of its way to be generous to the Vietnamese whose nation, after all, the war took place in was positive, yet by the last half hour people were getting bloodily shot and blown up in the worst kind of "Where life is cheap!" clichés we were hit over the head with in actual seventies cinema. Even the politics were unsubtle to the point of groan-inducing, including a Black Lives Matter coda tagged on blatantly after the fact to keep as relevant as possible. With his Oscar-winner, Lee had proved he could make the past vividly relevant, but this was a depressingly retrograde step. Music by Terence Blanchard (and Marvin Gaye singing).
Talented, prolific American director who has courted more controversy than most with his out-spoken views and influenced an entire generation of black film-makers. Lee made his impressive debut with the acerbic sex comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, while many consider his study of New York race relations Do the Right Thing to be one of the best films of the 80s.
Lee's films tend to mix edgy comedy and biting social drama, and range from the superb (Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam) to the less impressive (Mo Better Blues, Girl 6), but are always blessed with passion and intelligence. Lee has acted in many of his films and has also directed a wide range of music videos, commercials and documentaries. Inside Man saw a largely successful try at the thriller genre, Oldboy was a misguided remake, but he welcomed some of his best reactions of his career to true crime story BlacKkKlansman.