If style were substance, "Dead Presidents" would be Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason."
But style is only style, and so "Dead Presidents" is a slick, beautiful, engrossing but largely empty exercise in pyrotechnics and attitude. No one can doubt that the very young Hughes Brothers, who astounded the world with "Menace II Society," know where to put the camera. Possibly, however, they need to think through their materials a bit.
The film is loosely derived from a story told by Wallace Terry in his oral history of black soldiers in Vietnam, "Bloods." It's a sad ballad of a young man who goes to Nam, fights heroically, but comes back to diminished possibilities and ultimately ends up an armed robber in a violent armored car robbery.
But the Hughes brothers don't bother to find significance in it. They don't see it as a paradigm of black life, a model of martyrdom and oppression at the hands of larger and more brutal forces. They're too worried about how to get the explosions to go off in the right places at the right time to consider a big picture. This turns out to be a significant weakness in the film. It lacks the organic wholeness of "Menace II Society" and builds not to the catharsis of tragedy but the hyper-choreographed shootout of the professional Hollywood thriller.
In the first section, we meet Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate, who was O-Dog in "Menace II Society"), a young high school senior full of dreams (romantic and otherwise) but largely oblivious to the larger world around him. But Anthony's no innocent suburban kid; he's a city guy, a gifted pool player with a special "friend" named Kirby (Keith David) who's clearly a gangster. Anthony runs numbers; he's got a flair for the streets of the Bronx. The sequence doesn't seem to go anywhere, it merely meanders.
But the long central section in Vietnam, where Anthony serves in a highly professional unit called Marine Recon, has an astonishing power. The Hughes brothers have a natural, visceral talent for re-creating life lived at its most extreme: Their jungle is haunted with body parts, unbearable savagery and the starkest mayhem. It's Vietnam out of Conrad, a heart of darkness where racial identity becomes subsumed in a baser struggle for survival, an us-them dichotomy carried to the most savage extremes.
Yet Anthony isn't really debased by this experience, nor does he believe himself a victim. Rather, the Hugheses view him as a proud Marine without doubts, who takes pure pleasure in his refined skills of war. This is no platoon out of "Platoon" -- it's 100 percent gung-ho gyrenes who follow orders and love one another as brothers.
It's back in the world where Anthony's life and the movie begin to tilt in odd ways. Anthony returns to the Bronx but has no ambition to go to school or take advantage of any job programs his Marine service might entitle him to. He ends up as a butcher's assistant, and he's soon humiliated by the fact he can't keep his girlfriend (Rose Jackson) and daughter in finery on that little amount of salary. Upon losing the job when the butcher leaves the neighborhood, he falls into crime without much of an inner debate or consideration of other options.
From unemployed butcher to heavily strapped armed robber in almost 30 seconds? Seems hard to believe. The robbery, which is set up by a new unit -- a couple of ex-Marines, a radical student (his girlfriend's sister) and the gangster -- again seems to have not much of a connection to what came before it. It doesn't help a lot that it's filled with movie flourishes that run in total contrast to the earlier, more naturalistic parts of the film. When the Hugheses decide to paint Anthony in white face, like a mime in a guerrilla theater production, they're clearly indulging in pure visual hyperbole. It does give the sequence an almost avant-garde feeling, but why on earth would robbers choose a disguise that couldn't be discarded quickly in the event of a disaster?
The robbery is somewhat over-inflated, with explosions and killings and slow-motion stuff of the sort any film school graduate could pull off, and it's not cut together with much dynamism. It feels like it lasts an hour. Worse, that sort of thing isn't what's special about the Hugheses; it's strictly professional movie-making at its most professional and least engaging.
"Dead Presidents" -- the title is street slang for loot, money, filthy lucre -- seems confused. The Hugheses themselves aren't sure what they think of Anthony. Is he a fallen hero destroyed by economic forces and racism, or a brother who made his choices and has to face the consequences? Their confusion gives the movie a lack of focus that leaves one fitfully troubled.
Starring Larenz Tait and Keith David
Directed by the Hughes Brothers
Released by Hollywood Films
Rated R (violence, gore, profanity, sex)