Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? New Spike Lee on Netflix? HELL YEAH.
Four friends and Vietnam war veterans return to the country decades after the conflict ended. They find a modern state very different to the one they served in, where American cultural influence is both controversial and popular. But they are not there to sight see; they have come to find the remains of a dead comrade…. and maybe a treasure box full of gold.
Spike Lee’s first Netflix feature is kindof what you would expect the film maker to produce for the platform; with a decent budget and total creative control he has made a rambling, indulgent, overlong movie that is also bold, ambitious, and has many dynamite scenes. I mean, ‘ambitious’ barely even covers it. Lee takes aim at a variety of topics, and layers these thematic elements one atop the other, creating a film that is usually trying to do five things at once. Sometimes this feels disjointed, or can be confusing, othertimes it is electrifying.
He is first off riffing on the stereotypes that Hollywod has used over the years to tell war stories; where are the black heroes in these films? A lot of black Americans have served, and their deeds have been overlooked. There are also a number of satirical digs at The Great Hollywood Vietnam movie: ‘Apocalypse Now’; a good film that has been venerated to a ridiculous degree, and Lee has fun bursting its bubble. At one point he has a DJ play goofy pop songs at an ‘Apocalypse Now’ themed party night, at another he plays the iconic ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ music as the co-leads putter along a pedestrian canal in a boat.
But Lee is most interested in violence and racism, how these are connected, and how they perpetuate in an endless cycle. Setting this film in Vietnam allows the director to show that his black characters are not immune to racist behaviour themselves; they mostly treat the local Vietnamese with disdain, and dismiss references to their previous visit to the country when they all ended up with very bloody hands. One of them even wears a MAGA hat. Racism, as depicted here, is less a white person problem than a human one, and this film shows how we are all connected by humanity’s worst instincts.
These are on full display as the mission goes awry, and the former soldiers are drawn into an armed conflict with local gangsters, who also have their eyes on the gold. This is maybe the most daring part of the film, as Lee effectively restages the whole Vietnam war in miniature, and shows how it was never really an idealogical conflict, but rather a squabble over natural resources and bragging rights. The puppet master behind the gang is even an aging French businessman, a nod to the colonial powers and western governments that set the original conflict in motion, and then used people of colour to fight their battles for them.
History, only ever repeats itself.
Delroy Lindo is the standout in a top notch cast; his swagger and natural charisma are well utilised, and he nicely portrays his character’s descent into madness. He has one absolute show stopper of a moment, that people will be talking about for years. Jonathan Majors, a rising talent from 2019’s ‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’, is also excellent as Lindo’s conflicted son.
If this movie doesn’t stick every single thing it is going for, and sometimes jumps around a bit too often, and has too many characters and cutaways and simulatenous points to make… it is still a fascinating document, and the product of a unique and distinctive talent. Netflix continues to give prominent auteurs a blank canvas to work on, and that is exciting for anyone with an interest in cinema.