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"Dead Presidents"

by Henri Béhar

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In street slang, "Dead Presidents" means money. In Albert and Allen Hughes' first feature after "Menace II Society", it may also mean lost ideals as the film, ranging from 1968 to 1974, follows a young man named Anthony from his black neighborhood in the Bronx to Vietnam then back. An ambitious endeavor, DEAD PRESIDENTS perhaps bites more than it can chew, trying to be at once a period piece, a war story, a coming-of-age tale, a comment on education and family values, an indictment of a society that is never less than brutal on black men and veterans, and a caper movie in its third act when, desperate to support his family, Anthony sets up the robbery of a truck full of "dead presidents". With no mean contribution from their cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, the Hughes brothers are at their best when the film *moves*, viscerally, dynamically. They are sketchier when it comes to characters and, suprisingly for the makers of "Menace II Society", dialogue. But so be it: all directors experience a "second-movie slump", and as far as slumps go, this one is more than honorable. The acting is generally superb (although one must single out Bokeem Woodbine and, particularly, Larenz Tate--one dreads what a Mario van Peebles would have done with, or to, the part). Like Spike Lee, the Hughes twins balk when they feel it's asked of them to "represent all African-Americans" and insist on being considered purely as filmmakers. When "Menace II Society" came out, they referred to Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" in every single interview. In "Menace", however, they did a better job at covering their tracks. At times, DEAD PRESIDENTS feels like a baton is passed from "African-American Graffiti" to "Platoon" to "First Blood" (the one meaningful "Rambo") to John Huston's "Asphalt Jungle"-cum-Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing". Which is all the more disappointing since the Hughes brothers are remarkably talented.

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