In all respects an extremely ambitious follow-up to their crackling debut, “Menace II Society,” the Hughes Brothers’ mordant “Dead Presidents” may eventually box itself into a narrative dead end, but its muscular engagement of weighty themes and explosive situations makes it a powerful drama. A potent social panorama from a black perspective spanning the convulsive transitional years of 1968-74, this thoughtful, often grisly and depressing pic could almost serve as a gritty, sobering riposte to the merry political obliviousness of “Forrest Gump,” which traversed some of the same territory from a distinctly different perspective.
Story’s downward spiral and despairing blacks-as-victims framework may prove a turnoff for some younger ethnic viewers, but meaty reviews and film’s undeniable quality should draw a good mix of serious audiences from across the racial spectrum. Pic bowed at the New York Film Festival Sept. 30.
Surprising in the amount of territory it covers and concerns it addresses, this large-canvas, highly episodic saga spews out so many ideas that it arguably bites off more than it can chew. Building momentum as it sends its young protagonist through an ever-growing number of unexpected and harrowing experiences, the film ends up having to simplify or toss away many of the issues it presents, and finally lets itself down by cramming its outstandingly diverse characters and notions into a rigid genre format in the final half-hour. Aftergenerating so much electricity and promise through most of the running time , feeling at fade-out is, unfortunately, one of unsettled disappointment and smothering hopelessness.
Explicitly revealing the meaning of its title in a credit sequence featuring burning U.S. currency, pic begins unfurling in leisurely, almost jocular fashion. In a relatively proper, lower middle-class Bronx neighborhood of 1968, the good-natured, somewhat naive 18-year-old Anthony (Larenz Tate) is just finishing high school. While he may run numbers for tough but fair-minded pool hall operator Kirby (Keith David) on the side, and isn’t inclined to follow his studious brother Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine) to college, the well-reared Anthony is far from likely criminal material.
His best buddies are the somewhat crazy, life-of-the-party Skip (Chris Tucker) and the unpredictable Jose (Freddy Rodriguez). As for the ladies, Anthony’s girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson), takes him to bed for the first time on graduation night, but all her imploring can’t sway him from his surprising decision to enlist in the Marines and go to Vietnam.
A half-hour in, action jumps to the war, and for 20 intense minutes, pic chronicles Anthony’s coming-of-age under fire as he, in the company of Skip and Jose, operates with great efficiency as part of an elite unit. Most grotesque incidents involve the obsessive blood lust of a maniacal corpsman who carries around the chopped-off head of an enemy forgood luck, and Anthony’s agonized decision over what to do with an injured fellow Marine whose guts are spilling out of his body.
Once back home in 1973, Anthony faces the sad legacy of many Vietnam vets: relative scorn for what he’s done, no attractive prospects and, in his specific case, a more dangerous, drug-ridden neighborhood and a little girl to support, along with Juanita. Somewhat surprising, the latter has waited for Anthony and welcomes him back, but her interim involvement with a rich pimp has left Anthony intimidated and Juanita impatient with Anthony’s meager income.
Ultimately jobless and desperate, Anthony decides to pull off a big heist in cahoots with Kirby, Jose, Skip, Juanita’s revolutionary sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright) and, most unlikely of all, his brother, who’s now a neighborhood preacher. This final section, a sort of mini-“Asphalt Jungle,” feels partly like a different movie, and the low tension level, overdone violence and sudden swing into unnuanced nihilism fail to satisfactorily resolve the many possibilities earlier inherent in the material.
In the largest sense, Allen and Albert Hughes, who worked out the story with scenarist Michael Henry Brown, are concerned with the deterioration of both conditions and attitudes within the black community that paralleled the raising of political consciousness during the same period. With the political assassinations of 1968 not even mentioned, the relatively happy-go-lucky mind-sets and music of that period gradually grow darker and more dissonant until there seems to be no way out. All the same, an ending offering some ambiguity and diversity for the different characters might have been more appropriate than the blanket of bleakness served up.
Tate, who appeared in the Hughes’ first film, carries this one ably, moving convincingly from youthful cheerfulness to grim anger. Of the large supporting cast, standouts include David as the short-tempered Kirby, the riotous Tucker as the sassy sidekick and the powerful Clifton Powell as the hair-triggered pimp.
Although the use of widescreen gives the picture a welcome size, visual style is a distinct disappointment, with murky lighting and lackluster compositions giving the images an indistinct look. Danny Elfman’s eerie score, with a big boost from the extensive period song list, is a plus on the aural side.