Dead Presidents (Albert and Allan Hughes, 1995)
[originally posted 2Mar2000]
What do you do when your debut film is one of the top 100 movies of all time? [ed. note 2013: Menace II Society is currently at #58 on my all-time top 1000.] This was the predicament the Hughes brothers faced after releasing 1993’s stunning Menace II Society. My guess is they wanted to get away from what they were doing while still preserving the Hughes style that made Menace such a fantastic film, so they decided to do a flick about African-Americans’ involvement in Vietnam and its fallout.
More than anything, Dead Presidents suffered from awful marketing. Everyone flocked to the film expecting the whole thing to be about a bank heist, and instead they were treated to the story of Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate, the actor who made O-Dog so memorable in Menace) and two of his high school friends in the late sixties. Fully three-quarters of this movie is setup, if you go in thinking it’s about the bank heist, and I can see why a lot of people ended up panning this. However, if you realize it’s a story about one person growing up, coming of age in the middle of the jungle, and his attempted reintegration into society, it suddenly gets a whole lot better. Add an ensemble cast worthy of many praises (including a young, hip, and very funny Chris Tucker as Curtis’ best friend, N’Bushe Wright as his sister-in-law, and the brilliant Keith David as Kirby, the guy who originally gets Curtis involved in crime while still in high school), and it becomes an absorbing, painful meditation on life during wartime.
While it’s the best of the four here [ed. note 2013: it was presented along with with reviews for Rob Roy, Face/Off, and Three Strikes; those reviews will be posted here soon], there are still some less-than-classic things about Dead Presidents, the main one being that the Hughes Brothers didn’t go anywhere near far enough away from Menace to make this into a film with its own separate identity; in some cases, they might have been using the same sets, the same props, and the same dialogue. If you’ve never seen Menace, it probably comes off just as fresh and original as it did there, but those who compare the two (and saw them in order of release) will probably end up finding Menace the better film. One also wonders if the Hughes brothers didn’t use the Vietnam footage as an excuse for some extra gratuitous violence; the more Vietnam war films we get, the more brutal the footage becomes. We KNOW war is hell, folks, and there’s something to be said for the power of suggestion. Instead, Al and Al give us every gory, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, detail.
Still, I’d be wrong to not recommend this. It’s good, solid work. But if you haven’t encountered the Hughes brothers yet, I cannot urge you enough to go, now, today, and rent a copy of Menace II Society. ****
[ed. note 2013: …and Dead Presidents is #536 on that same list I referenced in the first paragraph.]
Full movie available at Youtube. Go watch it.