Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2020. 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, Rahway Road Productions. Screenplay by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee. Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. Produced by Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin. Music by Terence Blanchard. Production Design by Wynn Thomas. Costume Design by Donna Berwick. Film Editing by Adam Gough. AFI Film of the Year 2020. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2020. National Board of Review Awards 2020. National Society of Film Critics Awards 2020. New York Film Critics Awards 2020. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2020. Online Film Critics Awards 2020. Philadelphia Film Critics Awards 2020. Washington Film Critics Awards 2020.
Spike Lee contributes to the genre of Vietnam angst in his accustomed, vibrantly expressive manner, balancing a serious treatment of history with a humorous plot that hearkens back to tongue in cheek war movies like The Dirty Dozen. The file footage that begins this rowdy epic focuses not just on events of the Vietnam war but on the imbalance of African-Americans who served and lost lives in that colossal folly, serving as context for the film’s main characters. Four veterans reunite in Ho Chi Minh City nearly fifty years after they were part of a unit that lost its squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) in a firefight: Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., who have all done well in the years since they survived battle, and Delroy Lindo who has a become a jumpy, MAGA hat-wearing paranoiac who is clearly still suffering the effects of PTSD. They have gone there to embark on a trip into the jungle to find Boseman’s remains, having learned the news that a recent mudslide revealed the location of the downed airplane in which he lost his life. What the four men have not told their local guide is that the plane had already crashed when they initially found it decades earlier, and was a secret government vessel carrying millions of dollars in gold bars that the government was sending the Lahu people as payment for their help fighting the Viet Cong. All five men had buried the treasure and made plans to come back for it after the war, but now it has been buried for decades and is waiting for them to finally come and collect. Complicating their cool four-way split is the appearance of Lindo’s son Jonathan Majors, hoping to keep an eye on his father as they set off on what begins as a fascinating journey rich with incident, traveling between villages, up rivers and into the dense beauty of the jungle before things take a turn for the worse. The unwanted appearance of three volunteers for a landmine-cleaaring charity and the manipulations of a French businessman who is to smuggle the gold out of the country (played by an appropriately smarmy Jean Reno) sets plans on edge, not helped by Lindo’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like corruption from gold lust paranoia. Violent, provocative and possessed of a plot worthy of the finest film adventures, Lee’s ambitions begin to fail him in the second half when we begin to understand that his characters are slim and unconvincing types who reveal very little after their initial dazzling introduction, with Peters giving the film’s best performance thanks to his being the only fully-rounded character with a sense of history. Everyone else is undecided between enjoying a caricature or trying to actually squeeze a personality out of the shallow writing, Lindo in particular doing his best to find the third dimension in a role that demands his charisma and energy but never allows him to show the character’s internal struggle. Things really fall apart in the weak concluding act when the script compensates for uninspired plot turns by breaking out into shocking violence, losing the unpredictably imaginative spirit with which it began, but there’s a sense of time and place to it that feels vital and exciting despite all of its flaws.