Spike Lee’s excellent “Da 5 Bloods” opens with Muhammad Ali and closes Lee uses them to highlight another commonality: their strenuous opposition to the Vietnam War. For Ali, the objection cost him several productive years of his career and his heavyweight title; for Dr. King, this new focus was quite possibly the final straw that led to his assassination. The first words we hear are Ali’s famous explanation of why he refused to enlist.
Between these two bookends is a heist movie of sorts, albeit one with far more on its mind than its plot details would suggest. Lee is one of the few directors who takes to heart Godard’s comment that “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” There is critique here, especially of films like “The Green Berets,” “Rambo” and “Missing in Action,” with one character joking about how Hollywood went back to Vietnam to “try winning the war” on-screen. There’s also commentary on just how White these movies were, with people like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone achieving mythic glory while blithely erasing the fact that 32% of the soldiers in the jungle were Black.
Running in parallel with these criticisms are blatant homages to other films, and not just war movies like “Apocalypse Now,” which gets a visual name-check as the main characters do a pseudo-Soul Train line boogie to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” A big chunk of “Da 5 Bloods” pays tribute to John Huston’s masterful 1948 adaptation of B. Traven’s classic parable of greed, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Like that film, the plot involves a search for gold, though unlike Humphrey Bogart and John’s dad, Walter, the main characters here have a good idea where the treasure is.
As in films like “Inside Man” and “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee unabashedly quotes his influences—he knows that you know what he’s doing, and he milks that for as much mileage as he can. Steal from the best, as the adage goes, and “Treasure” is a vein worth mining.