The Hughes brothers’ debut feature, Menace II Society, was a clichéd story of the hood; filmed with flair on a budget of $3-million, it grossed over 10 times that amount. Dead Presidents, their second feature, was made with the support of big bucks — and while it covers familiar territory (the Vietnam war, ghetto violence), its stylish execution and tightly controlled performances make for a highly cinematic experience.
The excellent Larenz Tate (see picture) plays Anthony Curtis, a bright 18-year-old from the Bronx who decides to skip college and enlist in the Marine corps in the belief that it will make him a man. He returns from Vietnam in 1972 with a Silver Star, but instead of being treated like a hero, he ends up barely able to make ends meet. So he teams up with some of his buddies in a scheme to steal “dead presidents” — slang for used currency bearing the images of past US presidents. But the heist comes unwound, and he is heavily punished by the very government he served.
Elegantly filmed by Liza Rinzler in a virtually continuously moving cinemascope frame, the film boast some visual moments that would make Oliver Stone or Spike Lee proud. The flash-cut from Anthony running on car roofs as he escapes a neighbourhood brawl, to the jungles of Vietnam is brilliant, and the single-take, four or five-minute scene of a domestic squabble, moving in and out of focus, is similarly startling.
It’s a violent, even depressing, movie; the war scenes are especially gruesome. When Curtis takes a job in a butchery to try and garner an honest wage, the camera lingers on the slicing up of sheep’s heads; and his nightmares as he tries to readjust to civilian life are genuinely terrifying.
Sensational? I don’t think so. Rather, Allen and Albert Hughes, who were barely out of diapers when Nixon was in power, have come up with an engrossing but grisly mini-epic about the survivors of the war, and their jarring experiences as they reintegrate into civilian life. The all-important twist here is that it’s the first major US movie to deal with African-American veterans.
The film has its faults, especially the overuse of “motherfucker” and “pussy”. Still, its sense of drama, the marvellous musical score by Danny Elfman, and the tracks from Seventies funk stars, make this a familiar journey that I, for one, was all too pleased to take.