The directors Albert and Allen Hughes have tried their hands at many different genres since their debut, 1993’s visceral ghetto drama Menace II Society, though their films do share a common emphasis on visual style and there is usually a great deal of violence contained within the story. The Book Of Eli is a post-apocalyptic cowboy movie, From Hell Victorian gothic horror and Broken City (Allen Hughes on his own) a fairly straightforward police procedural. Dead Presidents, their 1995 follow up to Menace, is another exercise in genre-hopping: an intriguing mix of social drama, war film and heist movie, but the transitions from one part to the next are fluid and, oddly, it doesn’t feel like a messy jumble at all.
The Vietnam War films made in the 1970s and 1980s were all helmed by white directors and the stories focused mainly on white soldiers. The Hughes Brothers were the first directors to make a film that concentrated on the experience of African Americans instead – though not exclusively – with Larenz Tate and Chris Tucker in the primary roles as Bronx kids Anthony and Skip, two high school graduates who trade the pool halls and teenage parties of the borough for the jungles of south east Asia.
Dead Presidents loosely mirrors the structure of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, in that it initially concerns itself with the home life of a small number of characters (three friends, the third being Jose (Freddy Rodriguez)) before they voluntarily enlist or are drafted into military service, subsequently following them in combat and detailing the disrupted life afterwards. Anthony is keen to follow in the footsteps of his father – who served in the Korean War – and believes that joining the army will make him a man, whereas motormouth Skip is not interested in the slightest in fighting a ‘white man’s war’, pointing out that no-one from Vietnam has ever bothered him. Jose is drafted against his will and after being thrown out of college Skip will soon be making his way east too.
This part of the film is certainly colourful, with an immaculate selection of soul and funk numbers on the soundtrack, but it’s a little straightforward in its choice of scenes and locations. The pool hall – owned by local wooden-legged petty criminal Kirby (Keith David) – feels like a predictable turn-of-the-70s Noo Yawk setting (you half expect Johnny Boy to walk in unannounced) and there’s something a little tried-and-tested about Anthony’s path through this part of the film: earnest dinner table conversation with parents, fight with local small-time hood Cowboy (Terence Howard), graduation party and night spent with girlfriend Juanita (Rose Jackson), replete with a scene in which her mother arrives home early and Anthony must make a comic dash to get out of the house in his boxer shorts. (The name ‘Cowboy’ could possibly be a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and the character Private Cowboy, played by Arliss Howard. As well as The Deer Hunter the Hughes Brothers also make reference to Platoon, Jacob’s Ladder and Apocalypse Now in Dead Presidents.)
This does actually leads to a neat transition to the second act. Anthony is seen jumping over fences, running from one neighbour’s back yard to the next, and the Hughes Brothers suddenly cut to show him running at the same pace through the Vietnamese undergrowth, dodging both tracer fire and explosions. It’s abrupt, and signals a sudden shift in tone. The Vietnam section of the film is gruesome, with one soldier named D’Ambrosio (a pre-Sopranos Michael Imperioli) subject to a particularly horrible fate.
The scenes of warfare are handled in an assured style, though there’s nothing quite as gripping as Kubrick’s sniper or as electrifying as Coppola’s fleet of choppers to distinguish Dead Presidents from those films made before it. In fact as the indecisive squad leader has his authority questioned and one or two characters struggle to keep their madness in check it begins to feel a little too familiar, almost as though a checksheet is being used. By the time the soldiers’ downtime is illustrated with the usual scenes of weed and Vietnamese prostitutes (‘souvenir me boom boom’ Skip suggests to one) Dead Presidents loses its way a little, attempting to shoehorn in the very best elements of other Vietnam War films into a 30 minute segment, mostly to the detriment of character development.
Thankfully the subsequent acts are the film’s best. Upon returning home to The Bronx Anthony finds that the old neighbourhood has changed a little, and best friend Skip is addicted to heroin. He is reunited with Juanita and their young daughter, who was born during his tour of duty, but the initial interest in his life as a soldier soon disappears. Anthony’s sacrifice and heroism is forgotten about all too quickly by an ungrateful society, and this is compounded by Juanita’s lack of understanding and sympathy when he wakes up in cold sweats, unable to rid himself of the worst memories he has of combat. While Anthony was away Juanita slept with a local gangster named Cutty (a menacing, lollipop-sucking Clifton Powell), who still hangs around threateningly, and Anthony finds it a struggle to provide for his young family.
Help apparently comes in the form of Juanita’s younger sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), a member of the Nat Turner Cadre, a fictional group of revolutionaries that bring to mind the Black Panthers. Together with Skip, Kirby, Jose and a preacher named Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine) who repeatedly hacked off and kept the heads of defeated Vietnamese soldiers during the war, Delilah and Anthony hatch a plan to rob a Federal Reserve Bank security van that will be transporting millions of dollars to Washington. The thieves adopt a striking whiteface paint look to disguise themselves, a strong image that perhaps comes loaded with a message given the subject matter and Hollywood’s long-time focus on white soldiers.
As a commentary on the harsh treatment of veterans (particularly African American veterans), Dead Presidents adequately identifies a historical political problem but the film has a quiet anger, and it does not lay the blame solely at the door of the US Army or Government. If anything the local society of The Bronx is criticised more in terms of the lack of help Anthony receives from those around him, yet it is an ‘untouchable’ white judge (in a nod to Apocalypse Now played by Martin Sheen) who feels the wrath of Anthony’s anger at the end of the movie. Of all the other characters only a local butcher is really able to help the veteran out on his return, and that doesn’t last long. Kirby – a father figure of sorts – and Delilah simply drag Anthony into a life of crime, and all camaraderie that existed with Skip is killed off by the latter’s addiction. (The parents of Anthony and Juanita are nowhere to be seen in the part of the film set after the military service, which is perhaps an oversight by Albert and Allen Hughes.)
It is easy to sympathise with Anthony’s plight and his growing frustration as he discovers that survival in the urban jungle proves to be different but just as difficult as survival in the real jungle – this despite the fact in Anthony’s own mind he has returned from the war ‘as a man’. His manhood is regularly undermined, though, in particular by Cutty and Juanita, and the character makes decisions influenced heavily by the pressure to provide and prove himself. At a push you can understand how and why circumstance affects his decision-making; Larenz Tate is too likeable an actor to force you into any harsh judgment.
Anthony cuts a sympathetic figure, too easily led by those around him, and it is a good central performance by Tate, an actor who has drifted into TV and video game work since playing Quincy Jones in Ray ten years ago. Jackson and Tucker offer decent support, the latter’s manic delivery suiting the character and the period better than – say – his immensely annoying turn in The Fifth Element. Skip’s story arc is a tragic one, even if the character is a little one-dimensional. Some of the other supporting characters are a little thinly drawn, too. Cutty and Cowboy offer a degree of menace but stray into cartoon villainy on occasion. Delilah and Cleon are – in theory – extremely interesting characters, but the radical political awakening of the former isn’t covered properly and not enough is made of the insanity of the latter. Most disappointingly of all, Jose is conspicuously absent from the narrative for around 45 minutes, which lessens the impact of his fate in the final act considerably.
The length of The Deer Hunter allowed for a thorough examination of the lives and individual mental states of its characters before, during and after the Vietnam War, but at times Dead Presidents feels way too rushed. It aims to cover just as much as Cimino’s epic – arguably more – in two hours, as opposed to three, and it’s an impossible feat to carry off. Dead Presidents snaps along at a fair old pace, and while the transitions from New York to Vietnam to New York again are smooth, it does not quite feel substantial enough as either a drama or a war film; it may look and sound good but it just pays lip service to both genres and at times it feels like a collection of homages to earlier films. Unfortunately the best part of the movie – the heist – also feels rushed, and a slower build up would have led to a better payoff. An abrupt ending doesn’t help matters, either.
Still, it has an excellent soundtrack, some good performances and the ambition of the directors is commendable. The first time I saw it – on VHS in the mid-1990s – I loved it, and for years remained convinced it was an overlooked gem. Unfortunately a second watch has revealed a few flaws, but it’s still worth watching if you haven’t seen it before.
Directed by: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Written by: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes, Michael Henry Brown
Starring: Larenz Tate, Chris Tucker, Keith David, Rose Jackson
Running Time: 119 minutes