By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
According to its movie poster, Dead Presidents, the latest Hughes brothers film, is about "getting paid." Truer to fact, the second outing by the brothered ones is as flat and senseless as the white faces printed on that poster's pile of greenbacks.
And when you read the film's slogan, "Dead Presidents: The only color that counts is green," take it literally. These brothers, who brought us the long-running, surprise hit Menace II Society, are out to turn a dollar--even if it means employing the same insidious stereotypes of the 'hood seen on the evening news. The moral: they're "getting paid" because we're too dumb to recognize crappy filmmaking masked as a message from the 'hood.
Dead Presidents stars Larenz Tate as Anthony Curtis, a middle-class black kid from the Bronx who's struggling to find a direction for his life after high school in the Vietnam-era 1960s and '70s. Anthony rejects his mother's proddings and forgoes entering college for the glamorous life of what he calls "something different": a stint as a reconnaissance Marine.
Anthony is a different kind of kid, and the Hugheses' script leaves too many questions about his decision to go to war instead of college. Once in Vietnam, he's followed by two of his high-school buddies--Skip, played to a fine point by comedian Chris Tucker, and Jose, portrayed by a relative newcomer, Freddy Rodriguez. Rodriguez had a small role in A Walk in the Clouds, and Tucker is a Richard Pryor-styled natural from this summer's Friday. Another Vietnam/neighborhood connection is Cleon, a preacher's kid who's played to a sickening halt by the overexposed Bokeem Woodbine (Jason's Lyric).
The young men's experiences at war both solidify and damn the prospects for their lives beyond Vietnam. And by the end of the film--an exposition on abject despair--this group of relative innocents is transformed into a hodgepodge of either stereotypes or hard-life realities.
Which raises more than a few questions. Why, for example, does the middle-class Anthony constantly reject the obviously right decisions for his life? And why, when he's in some hellish predicament, does he never turn to his parents or brother for help? (His family more or less disappears until Anthony needs a meal or moral support.)
The Hughes brothers, of course, write from the gang mentality, which says that, once born, we are all alone and misunderstood. In a fire, these brothers would rather rally a gasoline bucket brigade than dial 911 for help.
Dead Presidents opens to a domestic scene at Anthony's home in the Bronx. His mother is so domineering that his father can be silenced with little more than a stare across the dining-room table. Anthony's trouble finding a purpose for his life, post-high school, leads him to the streets and Kirby, a one-legged pool hall owner and numbers runner. Kirby enlists Anthony to run the numbers, and in short order you see Anthony's manhood building through the actions and pleasures of the pool hall. In Kirby's world, the young man's separation from his loving, caring family is sealed with the flick of a knife.
Anthony soon succumbs to street life, coming of age in a familiar ritual for black males in the movies. He witnesses Kirby, his mentor, controlling the numbers trade through violence. Kirby, kicking asses with one leg, is the kind of man Anthony wants to be. So instead of moving on to college, with all the promise it's brought his older brother, Anthony goes to Vietnam to find his manhood.
It is here, in Dead Presidents' Vietnam segment, that it becomes clear the Hughes brothers have fallen victim to the sophomore jinx. Like those of their contemporaries, John Singleton and Matty Rich, Allen and Albert Hughes' second film lacks a clear identity. Dead Presidents, on the surface, is a coming-of-age film, but underneath, and at the end, it screams the scream of being denied the American dream. But the brothers fail themselves by assuming the audience will fill in the movie's blanks. There are relationship blanks, and blanks about Anthony's family and how easily they let him run with ne'er-do-wells. There are war-time blanks, and the silly coincidence of all his neighborhood cronies appearing in the same elite reconnaissance troop.
Furthermore, the Hugheses fail to define what are supposed to be Anthony's defining moments--such as when he loses a member of his unit. The racial twist that the Hughes brothers introduce in Anthony's moment isn't given the proper treatment to justify its impact in bringing about his ultimate feelings of despair when he returns home. The same is true for Skip, whose fate is sealed when he falters at a crucial moment in battle. The Hugheses try to flesh out the origins of the black soldiers' despair through comic drug scenes and empty references to Agent Orange, but they just don't cut it here.
It turns out that Anthony is the last to return to his neighborhood after Vietnam. He comes home physically intact, and a decorated hero. His friend Jose, a weapons expert in the war, emerges with a damaged hand and a serious speed addiction. Skip comes back in a straitjacket, hooked on heroin, and Cleon, who commits some of the film's most heinous acts of war, becomes the preacher of a small church.
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