An angry hybrid of Vietnam violence and inner-city strife, "Dead Presidents" suffers from two extremely frustrating flaws:
First, the film bites off far more than it can chew, with so many serious subjects skimmed over that they simply cannot be adequately addressed in the allotted two hours.
Further, the level of exaggerated violence and gore is so gross and disgusting that the film takes on a horror-movie look, which tends to undermine its intentions as a thoughtful exploration of troubled times for blacks. (No wound simply bleeds when it can gush and the camera lingers on the gory aftermath of violence in a way that may bring "Seven" to mind.)
Set in the late '60s and early '70s, "Dead Presidents" (street-slang for money) focuses on Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate, of "Menace II Society" and "The Inkwell"), a thoughtful kid from a loving family whose life is profoundly affected by the circumstances around him.
When we first meet him, Anthony is finishing high school and working as an early morning milkman. He is also running numbers for a local hood named Kirby (Keith David).
Though his older brother is graduating from college, Anthony tells his disappointed parents that he wants to join the Marines instead of continuing his schooling. And before his departure, Anthony allows himself to be seduced by his girlfriend (Rose Jackson), who, of course, becomes pregnant.
As a Marine, Anthony extends his tour of Vietnam and spends nearly three years in the bush. This lengthy sequence is horribly violent, with some gross-out elements that are more reminiscent of a Freddy Krueger movie than a serious character study.
Eventually, Anthony returns to the Bronx and takes up with his girlfriend again. He finds meager employment in a butcher shop but then renews his friendship with Kirby and they plot a bank robbery. The robbery is obviously doomed, however, since their cohorts are unstable hotheads.
That's how predictable too much of this weak screenplay is, often telegraphing plot turns and allowing too many characters to remain one-dimensional or simply disappear. There is also little foundation for some of Anthony's actions. As played by Tate, he seems too intelligent and thoughtful to simply join the Marines on a whim, much less to keep extending his tour of duty in Vietnam to avoid familial responsibilities. It also seems unlikely that he would be blind to the weaknesses of those he recruits for the bank robbery.
What redeems "Dead Presidents" is the sure-handed direction of the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, who also gave us "Menace II Society." Though their screenwriter Michael Henry Brown (cable TV's "Laurel Avenue") ultimately lets them down, the Hughes plunge ahead with confidence and style. (If only they had toned down the gore.)
The cast is excellent all the way around, with special kudos earned by Keith David, whose performance as the one-legged Kirby is a real highlight. And Rose Jackson is also notable as Anthony's feisty wife. (Danny Elfman's hard-driving music is also appropriate and the film's technical aspects are quite good.)
"Dead Presidents" is rated R for considerable violence and gore, profanity, vulgarity, sex, nudity and drug abuse.