Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dead Presidents (1995) Review

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Dead Presidents
They will try everything to hide the spotty script

Despite only viewing two of their movies, the Hughes brothers are two of the most fascinating directors that have emerged in the past twenty years. In their debut film Menace II Society, which they made at the tender age of only twenty-one, they clearly displayed that they have already developed their own distinctive voice in cinema and fearlessness in tackling difficult subject matter. Menace was an almost oppressively bleak film, but that dark tone was precisely why it felt so authentic and hard hitting on a gut level. It makes the more widely recognized Boyz N the Hood seem almost sentimental in comparison. The brothers also proved themselves to be strong visual artists who would soon be improving their craft in their sophomore effort Dead Presidents. Now usually before seeing a movie, I like to do some research to get an idea of what to expect so I can be in the right mindset. But for Dead Presidents, I decided to skip that process and only go by what I knew already: that the plot involved the Vietnam war and the main characters wore eerie white-face paint. I didn’t know how the two aspects were connected, but I was willing to find out on my own without being spoiled beforehand.

Plot Synopsis: Anthony is a high school graduate who can get into a good college, but he feels like he is missing something in his life. He has two close friends, Skip and Jose, and works part-time for a crook named Kirby, but he still feels like there is a void. In order to fix this, he enlists in the Marine Corps. Skip and Jose decide to enlist with him, and the three soon head off to Vietnam. In the four years that they are over there fighting, they all go through various experiences that impact their lives in some way. When they return home, they realize that they will not be able to return to a normal lifestyle. Skip has become addicted to heroin since his tour of duty, Anthony is experiencing frustrations in his life with his girlfriend Juanita, and Kirby has lost much of his reputation and power since the beginning of the war.

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First things first, Chris Tucker is playing a dramatic role. Now before you run away in fear, know that he is essentially playing the comic relief character, Skip, in the movie, so the role isn’t completely out of his ballpark. In fact, Tucker acquits himself quite efficiently to the change in tone; he’s funny as Skip but he scales back on his usual hysterics for the serious moments. Returning for his second collaboration with the Hughes brothers is Larenz Tate, who has now been bumped from being a sidekick to being the main protagonist. Anthony presents a wide range of opportunities for Tate to flex his underrated acting muscles, and out of this comes a tragically unnoticed dynamite performance. Tate can go from caring, loving, and sympathetic to ignorant, angry, and tortured in a matter of minutes while still staying true to who Anthony is; a naturally good person who has been through a lot during the war and who now has to deal with frustrations back on the home front. In a movie where all I expected was stylish visuals, Tate really grounded the movie in reality for me. Also providing excellent support is Keith David, who plays the father figure-like Kirby. Kirby is the parallel of Anthony for the older generation, one who fought in the Korean War but now has to resort to crime when his life couldn’t be supported on return. As always, David can play serious and funny with relative ease, a true character actor if there ever was one.

And now we come to the Hughes brothers, the ambitious duo that just don’t make as much movies as I wish they would. The urban setting, gory action, and great visuals are all Hughes trademarks, but now they place these aspects in a period setting that surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place. The 60s and 70s are really treated with respect and honesty here. There are precious few if any clich├ęs of the decades present, which lets the story breathe without being distracted with stereotypical trends. The tone starts out appropriately optimistic and innocent, but once the characters arrive home from the war then things only get darker and worse off for them until the point of desperation. The heist scene that soon follows is one of the most exciting and visually striking this side of Heat. The white-face makeup employed by the characters has now become the iconic image of the movie, a symbol of the white oppression felt by the African-American community during the time.

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Now if I ended my review there, then you might think that Dead Presidents was one of the best movies of the 90s where all the pieces fell right in place. Unfortunately, they really don’t. The narrative feels rather disjointed in places, as if some transition scenes were missing or edited out to tighten the pacing. Some of the storylines aren’t entirely resolved, like the subplot with Cutty the pimp, and some supporting characters aren’t well developed. In particular, Juanita’s sister Delilah doesn’t have much reason to join in on the heist, especially since she is the leader of a black revolution group. But the thing that bothered me the most was how the themes and messages of the story were also underdeveloped and unclear. There are points that one would think would lead to messages about the desensitizing nature of violence, the lack of respect for Vietnam veterans, or the traumatic aftershock of war, but they are barely touched again afterwards. The heist almost feels more like it was caused by the ignorance of the characters regarding their lives rather than how they were affected by the war. The reason a movie like The Deer Hunter works is because it slowly takes its time to unravel the plot, characters, and themes in a way that deepens and improves the connections between them.

Dead Presidents, however, doesn’t take its time, which leaves it feeling incomplete and choppy. There is plenty to like in the movie, from the meticulous technical aspects to the strength of its cast, and most of the scenes are excellent on their own. But excellent scenes that lack connection don’t help the overall product. Dead Presidents is definitely worth a rental, but don’t be surprised if you are left wondering what it all means by the end.

2.5/4

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