Idealistic teen Anthony (Larenz Tate) goes to Vietnam to escape his poor Brooklyn neighborhood, where the only clear path to financial security means odd jobs for a kind, shady pool-hall operator (Keith David). Vietnam is not the refuge Anthony hoped for (is it ever?); the only thing worse than the squad of psychotics to which he’s assigned is the violent bloodbath that leaves most of them dead in the jungle. Upon returning home, stricken, Anthony toils in a low-wage butcher shop while his young wife sleeps around and his friend, Skip (Chris Tucker), soothes Agent Orange poisoning with heroin and crime. When his wife leaves him for the neighborhood pimp, Anthony aligns with a group of black radicals fronted by his sister-in-law (N’Bushe Wright) who offers Anthony a chance at redemption. See, there’s this mail truck filled with money that’s scheduled to be destroyed anyway…
After dumping accolades on the Hughes’s debut feature, Menace II Society, Hollywood pundits turned their eyes to the brothers’ next project, an adaptation of a true story from Wallace Terry’s book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. It was a crafty choice for the brothers, satisfying financiers eager to brand them as new, edgy Spike Lees producing cinema about black America, while simultaneously allowing the pair to aim for a more mainstream audience. After all, what’s more commercial than a heist?
…starring Larenz Tate.
The film’s modest budget—$13M by most accounts—turned Dead Presidents into a studio-funded indie film of sorts, built around a cast of semi-knowns trudging through the “jungles” of Orlando. Budget attrition allowed the brothers to spend big on the soundtrack, including a huge selection of Motown hits and a score by Danny Elfman, known then mostly as Tim Burton’s pocket harmonica. The Brothers hoped that hiring Elfman would give their film more traction with the media who might otherwise overlook the film as yet another black crime drama.
The strategy worked, but the film didn’t. Dead Presidents was one of the most anticipated films of the 1995 holiday season, but sputtered at the box office, choking to death on smoke from a bonfire of negative reviews and ending the brief Hollywood honeymoon for the Hughes’s.
“I’ve seen this before. He’s in hibernation, awaiting the script for Rush Hour 4.”
What Works Like Crazy
If the Hughes Brothers had any fatigue or lack of passion for their sophomore effort, they didn’t show it with Dead Presidents. They just directed the hell out of the movie. The film draws a comparison between the shitstorm of Vietnam and the racial struggles of the 60s, then plops a genial, kind-of-nice kid in the deadlands between them. Where is Anthony supposed to go? Why risk his life and sanity for his country in Vietnam, when his country hoses him in return? Anthony goes away to Vietnam as a gentle young man and a patriot, but returns compromised by the violence in a “white man’s war,” a corruption which manifests physically when Anthony steals his white sergeant’s tactics for fighting dirty or when donning white face paint to steal. The point is that black violence has roots in the system built by whites.
The film is stylish, but not showy, utilizing jaunty camera angles and saturated colors to slowly build Anthony’s nightmare and maintaining different looks pre- and post-Vietnam to reflect his changing perspectives. Meanwhile, the Elfman score feels like an intentional nod to the kind of work the composer was putting out for Tim Burton at the time, and some of the gorier elements feel lifted from a gothic horror film—hints of the coming From Hell. In fact, Dead Presidents doesn’t feel too far from a version of the story Burton might have directed himself, and in 1995 that was a compliment.
The film has too many ideas. It’s hard to get a handle on what exactly Dead Presidents is supposed to be. The film’s signature sequence, the mail truck heist, is a relatively minor part of the film—an afterthought rather than a culmination. Viewers hoping for a heist movie instead unwrapped an uneven drama, a hodgepodge of better films like Goodfellas, Coming Home, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now. Delusions of grandeur plague Dead Presidents, and material that might have worked if treated as pulp instead collapses as the brothers try to pile on every last word about the black experience in Vietnam.
I’m tempted to heft some of the blame on Larenz Tate, who’s utterly miscast and rarely convinces as the boyish idealist turned hardened war vet. Tate comes across as a child playing at being bad, even as he savages a street hustler or masterminds a robbery. Still, I feel the true fault lies with the script, which forces Tate’s character to carry his scenes and shoves the more interesting characters (Keith David’s, for one) into sub-supporting status. Vietnam movies are notorious for using pleasant blanks to fill the lead role (Matthew Modine, both Sheens), but usually find more charismatic personalities on which to anchor the movie (R. Lee Ermy, Marlon Brando, Willem Dafoe). Here, Tate is asked to do too much.
Still, problems with casting or budget may be forgotten if the finale had lived up to its promise. Audiences can be mighty forgiving if they get the movie they paid to see, but the heist scene itself is a fiasco. The Brothers abandon any chance of developing tension by employing a confusing set-up that fails to clearly establish the basics, like who’s who or how the plan is supposed to go down. The action is over-directed, and makes little sense. To use just one example: when Jose blows the door off the money truck, the explosion is big enough to see from Venus… and yet the money is somehow untouched.
Not pictured: payday
The Hughes Brothers are overwhelmed by their ambition and get in over their heads. Dead Presidents ultimately can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a coming-of-age tearjerker? A crime drama? A war movie? A heist? Dead Presidents tries to be all of those and spreads itself too thin. Audiences expecting a heist film abandoned the movie to relative obscurity while glomping onto the bigger budget, payoff-happy pleasures of Michael Mann’s Heat two months later. It was a sad end for a film, and filmmakers, dripping with potential.
The Hughes Brothers Project
5. Dead Presidents