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
Length: 119 Minutes
Release Date: May 19, 1998
“Well, that’s Uncle Sam for ya…money
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
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.
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.
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)