1995, R, 120 min. Directed by Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes. Starring Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, Freddy Rodreguez, Rose Jackson, N'Bushe Wright.
REVIEWED By Joey O'Bryan, Fri., Oct. 13, 1995
In looking to expand their creative palette beyond the streetwise nihilism of their debut feature, the excellent Menace II Society, the directing team of Allen and Albert Hughes appear to have bitten off more than they can chew with Dead Presidents, an electrifying and occasionally powerful but unfocused work, that despite its many strengths, fails to equal the impact of their previous picture. Set in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, the film chronicles the evolution of 18-year-old Anthony Curtis (Tate) from a freewheeling, happy-go-lucky youngster to a scared 22-year-old Vietnam war veteran who turns to crime after his life has more or less fallen apart. There are several scenes in Dead Presidents that are well worth anyone's time, like Keith David's wickedly funny one-legged assault while attempting to collect a debt, or the adrenaline-charged ultra-violence of the climactic heist, but the film simply lacks emotional momentum and is seemingly content to merely move from event to event with little dramatic build-up. Granted, the epic scope of the story line is bound to leave a few of the more minor subplots less than fully developed, but the movie instead decides to touch all too briefly upon every plot point the tale brings up, in the process reducing even major events to the status of footnotes. Ambitious? You bet. Effective? Not really. Sure, we may see Curtis become a marine and a criminal, but we never truly understand or, more importantly, feel why this character does what he does. The information is simply thrown at us. In this light, the overall cohesion of Dead Presidents might have benefited from either a longer running time or a narrower focus, despite the commercial liability of the former and the creative compromise required by the latter. Nevertheless, there is much to admire in Dead Presidents: Lisa Rinzler's moody photography, the top-flight soundtrack (which, beyond its primo selection of R&B classics, also features composer Danny Elfman's best work in years), and all the fine performances -- with Keith David's smoldering cool and Chris Tucker's hyperactive silliness both especially memorable. Ultimately, however, the Hughes Brothers' ambition is admirable, but, as with their main character, ambition gets the better of them. With this in mind, it seems wholly appropriate, not to mention somewhat symbolic, that Dead Presidents ends not with a bang (a la Menace), but a whimper.