A blazing mixture of action thriller, war story, and family saga, Dead Presidents (Hollywood, R) fans all the right flames. Its story is both simple and ambitious: During the late ’60s and early ’70s, a lower-middle-class South Bronx teen, Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), begins a career as a numbers runner under the steely tutelage of Kirby (a gravelly-voiced, ferocious Keith David). When he’s old enough to enlist, Anthony goes to Vietnam for no other reason than that it’s ”something different.” His four years in battle — telescoped into a quick series of appalling, nightmarish scenes — toughen the sensitive Anthony, and deaden him, too. He returns home to his girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson), and their baby daughter, and tries family life. But, laid off from work and with no job in sight, Anthony masterminds an armored-car robbery that will get him and a group of friends the money — the ”dead presidents” — needed to make a fresh start.
As directed by twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who also made Menace II Society, Dead Presidents‘ rhythm makes it feel less like a movie than like certain pieces of music: Stevie Wonder’s ’70s work, or, even more to the point, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a gorgeously bleak, druggy 1971 meditation on race. Like a good concept album, Dead Presidents is constantly shifting in tone and mood. The filmmakers acknowledge what so few movies about this period do: that Curtis Mayfield, a prominent presence on the movie’s soundtrack, was as crucial to the politics of the era as the Black Panthers; that Soul Train was as surreal an experience as Nam on the evening news. All of the above receive equal, shrewd scrutiny in Dead Presidents.
If the toughest task the directors set for themselves was presenting the Vietnam War in a way that might distinguish Dead Presidents from, say, Apocalypse Now or Platoon — by and large they succeed — their easiest job was casting a slew of excellent African-American actors in star-making roles. The Hughes brothers get subtle performances from Tate, Clifton Powell as a lollipop-sucking pimp, and the stand-up comic Chris Tucker, whose heroin-addicted Skip speaks in nonstop Richard Pryoresque patter. David establishes Kirby as a violent man (in one of the movie’s scariest yet funniest scenes, Kirby takes his own artificial leg and threatens to beat a man with it), who also has an intense yearning to see Anthony make good. And for all its hard-boiled machismo, Dead Presidents also offers at least two vivid portraits of women: Jackson’s Juanita is a quiveringly vulnerable girl whose single-motherhood turns her powerfully angry, and N’Bushe Wright, playing Juanita’s sister, is an idealistic militant — Angela Davis with an angelic glow.
The movie builds to the armored-truck heist, and here the directors pay homage to influences ranging from Martin Scorsese (in the calm, meticulous way this explosive scene is set up) to any number of garish exploitation films (in the gleeful blood and guts with which the viewer is splattered). Then the Hugheses add a final, fine touch of irony, by having these African-Americans disguise themselves in whiteface, which doesn’t so much conceal their race as it does make them seem like angry, avenging ghosts.
There’s no denying that there is a certain predictability to Dead Presidents — from the start, it’s a sure bet that Anthony will never know a peaceful life and that the white power structure will be implicated in his downfall. But in casting the tale as a grand tragedy and then undermining that pretension with wild action and frequent bursts of hilarious, bitter humor, the Hughes brothers have made a jolting movie.