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Review: “Dead Presidents” (1995)

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
~~Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

Years after its end, the Vietnam War continues to be an endless source of fascination, perhaps because it created an entire culture of traumatized and neglected soldiers. The decades-long conflict led to the creation of unnerving films like “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Taxi Driver,” among others, all of which tackled the subject of the war and the way it sneaks into men’s souls like a parasite, to be discovered only when the damage becomes too extensive to contain any longer. Albert and Allen Hughes’ gritty and realistic “Dead Presidents” deserves billing with these films for the way it depicts the disenfranchisement of a whole other culture: the African-American men who fought what everyone told them was “the white man’s war.”

Despite the trailers touting “Dead Presidents” as a heist film, the Hughes brothers’ second production is without question a film about the Vietnam War and its effect on the three childhood friends who end up fighting it. Anthony (Larenz Tate), who does occasional runs for Bronx dealer Kirby (Keith David) but generally plays it straight, sees the service as a way to “do something different” and avoid college. The people in Anthony’s life, from his mother (Jenifer Lewis) to his girlfriend Juanita (Rose Jackson) to Cowboy (Terrence Howard), a short-tempered thug, aren’t sure how to react, though Cowboy isn’t shy about telling Anthony he has “no business” joining up. But he ends up in Vietnam with his friends Skip (pre-“Rush Hour” Chris Tucker, when he could act a little and not just make funnies) and Jose (Freddy Rodríguez), who loses his hand and gets an early trip home. All three see hideous things, like bodies blown in half, disembowelment and numerous beheadings by a nightmarish fellow soldier named Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), who keeps the gruesome treasures as “souvenirs.” Albert and Allen Hughes don’t blink or back away from the wartime violence, and they don’t try to censor the brutality. These scenes make “Dead Presidents” a legitimate war film. They take up little running time, but they feel epic.

The blossoming directors also display a talent for capturing war’s aftermath, evident in the deterioration of Anthony, Skip and Jose when they return to the Bronx and in Kirby, a Korean War veteran forced to turn to crime for money. Again, contrary to promos, this part of “Dead Presidents” is more than a build-up to the promised heist. (The heist, though action-heavy enough to satisfy fans, is the least interesting part of the film.) Tate does admirable work in letting Anthony unravel slowly, turning more to alcohol to quiet his mind and finds himself unable to do what he promised he would during his days at war: engage in the world he left behind. The stress of finding a good job to provide for Juanita and their daughter — born while Anthony was in service — forces him perilously close to the edge. Rodríguez’s Jose didn’t come back right in the head and passes the time doing speed and fantasizing about putting his knowledge of explosives to good use. The motor-mouthed Tucker is effective as Skip, who started a love affair with heroin in Vietnam he can’t stop. And why would he want to? Overseas he saw things that burned into his brain. Shooting up is as close as he gets to unseeing. All three aren’t merely close to the breaking point, they’re on top of it.

In following these characters’ lives, we come to grasp their motivations for deciding to rob an armored car. “Dead Presidents,” like the Hughes brothers’ debut film “Menace II Society,” is something of a character study, not another film where a heist happens because a heist happens. This stellar second outing also functions as a study of how war changes people. War creates men that poet Wilfred Owen, in “Greater Love,” describes as lost to the world outside the battlefield: “Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.” Anthony, Skip and Jose came back from the war, but they came back unreachable.

Grade: A-