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‘Dead Presidents’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1995


Allen Hughes;
Albert Hughes
Larenz Tate;
Keith David;
Chris Tucker;
N'Bushe Wright;
Freddy Rodriquez;
Bokeem Woodbine;
Clifton Powell;
Rose Jackson
sexual situations and considerable violence

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THE BEST thing to be said about "Dead Presidents" is that it keeps you watching. Hughes brothers Allen and Albert, who made the brutal but stunning "Menace II Society," prove once again they know how to sell a movie.

But "Presidents," despite zesty performances and isolated good moments, has nothing behind it but a second-rate saga. The screenplay, by Michael Henry Brown (based on a story by Brown and the Hughes brothers), touches upon a ton of big-themed subjects—from growing up disenfranchised and black in America to the harrowing wartime experience of black soldiers in Vietnam. Unfortunately, it does so in a secondhand manner, as if the three filmmakers are simply basing their movie on other hard-hitting ensemble movies, such as "Platoon," "Reservoir Dogs" and "GoodFellas."

In 1968, young Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) graduates from high school and, to his family's disappointment, joins the Marine Corps. On the eve of leaving for Vietnam, he impregnates his girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson). But during his two tours, he doesn't permit himself to think of the legacy he's left behind.

Joined by his involuntarily enlisted friends Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) and Skip (Chris Tucker), he encounters some nasty situations in country, including missions with fellow soldier Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), who at one point decapitates an enemy soldier and keeps the head for good luck.

Anthony returns to his old neighborhood in 1972. Things aren't the same. Juanita has to accept the cash and love of a local hood to pay for the baby's upkeep. Delilah, Juanita's cute, demure sister, has gone radical. Kirby (Keith David), the benevolent, one-legged, numbers-game hustler who used to employ Anthony, has been squeezed out of business because the cops' bribery demands have become too inflated. Financially, Jose and Skip are even worse off. The future looks bleak, until they get wind of an armored car that will be transporting a cache of unmarked "dead presidents" (slang for cash) due for destruction. All they need is a plan and some guns.

As the good-natured Anthony, who tries to play by the rules but is forced into violence, Tate (star of "Menace II Society") is a likable personality. But he comes across as too schematic rather like Kadeem Hardison in Mario Van Peebles's "Panther," who goes from saluting Uncle Sam to infiltrating the Panthers to, finally, joining the cause—all in one, heavy-handed character arc. There are amusing performances, particularly from David who, while roughing up a customer who hasn't paid his extortion fees, gets mad at the victim for making his artificial leg fall off in the fight. As Skip, Tucker takes a cliched role—the profane, big-talking, high-voiced griper—and still makes it funny.

Unfortunately, the story manages to be intense (and very bloody), heartfelt and superficial, all at the same time. When the ballistics die down, it's clear that the Hughes brothers were bound to get to their grim, damning conclusion by any means, fair or foul.

DEAD PRESIDENTS (R) — Contains sexual situations and considerable violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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