Spike Lee is a challenge and clearly intends to be just that. His films always contain “extraneous” elements that no Hollywood producer would want: shots of protests, MLK orating, violence in the streets, etc.–all in relation to a story based on The Treasure of Sierra Madre but shifted from white guys seeking gold in Mexico to black guys seeking gold in Vietnam. And the remains of their hero/leader, a too good to be true soldier who was killed in an ill-conceived mission. The Bloods return after all these years to a Vietnam that at first looks like an extension of any other tourist destination but quickly becomes the foil needed to bring out the damage these men have suffered for decades: PTSD in a single word. Especially Paul who remains in a jittery rage, ready to attack anyone, including his son, if they cross him and he is easily crossed.
Paul is the central character and not an appealing one. Lee tests us to like a guy so badly messed up. By the military that used black troops as cannon fodder, by buddies who can’t quite connect with each other, by Vietnamese who harbor hatreds of their own. The last point, like much in the film, stretches credibility. By most accounts modern-day Vietnamese have moved beyond the American War of some 45 years ago. Young men then would be in their sixties now. Young men now would not have been born until 20-30 years after the war, so why do two different young Vietnamese men say people like Paul killed their mother and father? Lee wants the rage to burst out everywhere but turns the Vietnamese into stereotypical bad guys, or the one “loyal” good guy, or the women who were whores and now prosper, etc. It’s a Frenchman who is the most conniving although a band of greedy thugs who covet the gold come a close second. At least they don’t promise one thing and then do another.
My comments are a bit of a jumble because the film is too and although I admired its power and the simmering turmoil inside the men, the film just doesn’t gel. It uses another culture, or distorts another culture, to bring out the issues and defects Lee wants to display in these damaged men, which range from wisdom and altruism, despite their sufferings, to the murderous, mad rage of Paul. He also stretches out the ending by some 15 minutes after it is clear how things end up by tacking on scene after scene as if one more scene will really nail the thematic nail on the head. They just add clutter.
I’m glad I saw it but wish we had a film on that war that gave a more balanced, more insightful portrait of what it was like for the America that resisted it, the soldiers who fought it, and the people whose country endured it.