The sophomore effort from sibling director team Albert and Allen Hughes, Dead Presidents was released in 1995 and stars Larenz Tate as a young man in the Bronx who goes off to fight in the Vietnam War, and upon his return plans a bank heist.
The heist takes precedence in all the promotion for this movie. It’s the subject of the tagline, and the poster. Summaries everywhere make that the focus. The film takes its title and its lengthy opening sequence from the presidents on the currency. Everything about the way this film is sold to the audience is set up around getting the audience looking forward to the heist. This is in stark contrast to the film itself, which waits until the last 30 minutes of its two hour run time to even put the heist on the table.
Instead of ripping off an armored car, why don’t we just target movie viewers? It’s usually safer.
Larenz Tate plays Anthony Curtis, who along with his friends Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) and Skip (Chris Tucker) is graduating high school and is trying to figure out what to do with his life. He does some odd jobs for local crook Kirby (Keith David), who runs a numbers racket, and he’s considering community college. But he decides to follow in the footsteps of his father and enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. He tells his girlfriend Juanita (Rose Jackson) not to wait for him if she doesn’t want to. Jose gets drafted into the army, and Skip — who flunks out of college — joins Anthony’s unit in the war.
All three come back with some degree of physical or emotional scarring, though Anthony fares better than his friends. When Anthony comes home, he tries to be a provider for Juanita and his daughter (conceived before enlisting), but finds that there aren’t a lot of good jobs available. And that’s when Jose suggests the heist plan; the three and Kirby set up the plan with Anthony’s former staff sergeant Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine) and Juanita’s sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), now a militant Black Panther.
Just the sort of person you want along on a delicate operation.
I’m glossing over a lot of the plot, and that’s not out of a desire to avoid spoiling it… it’s simply because there really isn’t a whole lot of meat to it. This movie takes its sweet time going anywhere. It seems to have no idea what kind of movie it’s supposed to be. For the first 45 minutes or so, it’s a coming-of-age story in the Bronx. Then it’s a war movie for a bit, and then a story about adjusting to post-war life. Then, finally, it gets to the heist. I understand what the Hughes brothers are going for with it; they’re trying to make us care about the characters before the heist goes down. But it doesn’t work, because most of this is simply tedious and dull. There’s nothing in the coming-of-age segment we haven’t seen elsewhere a few dozen times before, and the characters, while well-acted, aren’t particularly interesting or charismatic. Anthony seems to have no motivation to his character, he just drifts aimlessly from one thing to the next as the plot demands. And Skip is just irritating; it’s like they told Chris Tucker, “act like you do in your routines, but don’t try to be funny.” There’s the vulgarity and the wild-eyed takes, but there’s nothing to make us want to like or even watch this character. (I’m not saying he should have been funny — this is a drama, after all — but there should have been something worth watching about the character.)
I could forgive the movie for not really being about the heist if it were just a case of me misunderstanding, or of someone else’s blurb leading me to believe that incorrectly. But the title and the opening sequence are selling the heist. That’s what I was interested in, but it’s only a very small portion of the film. The war segment is also fairly brief. That poster above touts the “wild action!”, but if marketing quotes were sorted by type, that one would get filed under “blatant lies”. Most of this film is just uninteresting. If it could be said to have a focus, it’s about the difficulties Vietnam vets had after returning to the States, but there are films that handle that much better, and here even that is dull. This isn’t “powerful!” as the poster also says, it’s pedestrian.
Dead Presidents is a boring, meandering film which takes forever to get to anything interesting, and then stays there only briefly. And its selling point is not only withheld for most of the film, when it finally arrives, it’s all too predictable given the group of screw-ups involved. The characters are uninteresting, the plot is dull, and the film is just plain slow. There’s just not much to recommend about this film.