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DEAD PRESIDENTS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, N’Bushe Wright, Freddy Rodriguez, Bokeem Woodbine
Directors: Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Disney/Hollywood
Features: None
Length: 119 Minutes
Release Date: May 19, 1998

“Well, that’s Uncle Sam for ya…money to burn.”

Film ****

Following the breakout success of their first film, the inexpensively budgeted masterpiece Menace II Society, twin filmmakers Allen and Albert Hughes proceeded to their next project, Dead Presidents, which is as gritty and hardcore as an urban drama can get. The most unique part of the movie is that it’s really three movies wrapped up in one. The first half is sort of a coming of age piece, the second half is a horrifying experience in the Vietnam war, and the last half is a story of desperation and crime, all of which build momentum very powerfully into a solid and powerful character piece.

As Menace II Society dealt with the harsh reality of making it through life in South Central L.A., Dead Presidents is very much in the same vein, only here the setting is the Bronx in the late 60s and early 70s. The film tells the story of Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), who has just graduated from high school and is very uncertain of what he wants to do with his life. Wanting to get away from home, but not to go to college, Anthony enlists in the marines right at the wake of the horror of the war in Vietnam, thinking it would make his dad proud of him, since he served in the Korean War and said it made a man out of him. He does head off to the war, along with two high school friends, Skippy (Chris Tucker) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), and the experience in the jungle is one that results in Anthony becoming something of a different person, but is it for the better?

Although the Vietnam story Dead Presidents lasts only for about thirty minutes, it alone contains some of the most audacious reflections of the war since perhaps Apocalypse Now. The scenes of violence in the entire movie are of a graphic nature, and the war scenes, in particular, contain moments of such brutality that some viewers might not want to glance at. I remember when I first saw this at the theater, and being shocked by an image of a critically maimed soldier, which was a moment of pure grotesqueness that stood in my mind for a long time. We follow Anthony and his platoon through the jungles, and through all the horrors we witness along with Anthony, it sets in tone perfectly how this changes the one time innocent.

Returning to his home in 1973, after a two tours of duty, Anthony discovers that the old neighborhood has changed a little. He hooks back up with Skippy, who is now a drug addict, and his old mentor Kirby (Keith David), whom he ran numbers for prior to joining the marines. He also discovers that his girlfriend (Rose Jackson), who he got pregnant before going off to war, is about to have another baby on the way. Anthony tries the best he can to make ends meet by getting a job at a meat market. That job, however, doesn’t last very long, and very soon Anthony is left broke and unemployed. It is at this point when Anthony makes a desperate move, and constructs an elaborate scheme to steal thousands of dollars, or “dead presidents”, from a treasury truck. It seems like the perfect robbery, since the money is unmarked, and is only being taken by the trucks to Washington to be no more than burned. He brings in Kirby, Skippy, Jose, his revolutionist sister in law (N’Bushe Wright), and a former marine (Bokeem Woodbine), who was a hyperkinetic psychopath in Nam, but is now a reformed minister at a local church.

The heist sequence is an amazing set piece, and showcases the Hughes Brothers’ talent for filmmaking. The gang dons disguises in mime make-up, and the heist results in an extended bloodbath of a shoot out, and a remarkably executed action sequence, as well. Following the robbery sequence is a wonderful moment that showcases a montage of the money stolen,  with Anthony shook up by a loss, and the rest of the gang shook up with fear of possibly getting caught or ratted out.

The conclusion of Dead Presidents may not satisfy some, but it serves the story piece very fitfully. It’s the kind of story that anyone can identify with in terms of guilt and failure, and making certain choices in life, and facing the harsh consequences, and the end of the film states the harshness of the consequence very well. The movie has a line of terrific performances by Larenz Tate as Anthony, and Chris Tucker, who’s known mostly for comedy, provides some minor comic relief but at the same time is also carries the dramatic element of his character extremely well.   

Dead Presidents was one the best movies of 1995, and is still to this day, I feel, an under appreciated masterpiece of filmmaking.

Video **1/2

This is one of Disney’s first releases to the DVD market, and watching it, or any title from their early line of releases, makes me ponder why they won’t take any of them and re-issue them in a Special Edition format, a la Columbia Tri Star. Nevertheless, the video presentation does have its moments. The scenes in Vietnam, for example, come off totally clear and crisp images. The darker settings, and many of the scenes in New York, come off as soft and contain some instances of noticeable bleeding. An overall mixed reaction.

Audio ***

Not the most elevating audio presentation that you’ll come across, but Disney serves this disc well with a good enough sounding 5.1 Digital track. Again, this was an early release from the studio, so it’s not at the level of their current audio standards. The scenes in Vietnam, and the numerous instances of action, and most definitely the climatic heist sequence all turn out nicely and carry a sharp sounding presence, with gunfire and frequent explosions coming through impressively.

Features (Zero Stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Dead Presidents is one of the most masterfully done urban thrillers of the last decade. If you appreciated the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society, and are looking for a strong message movie, this is a surefire choice.