Dead Presidents is technically well crafted, and somehow the worse for it: It’s a series of numbing banalities written sky-high in neon, so that there’s no mistaking either the filmmakers’ intent or the emptiness of those intentions. A portrait of one man’s journey through the violence, disillusionment and revolutionary activism of the Vietnam era, it employs a structure similar to Born on the Fourth of July, and it attempts to tell a story on an equally vast scale. But its epic ambitions cannot hide the fact that Dead Presidents is a caper flick badly disguised as social commentaryand that its young directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, have no interest in their characters beyond their properties as action figures or clothes racks.
Dead Presidentsthe title refers to the faces on currency denominationsopens in 1968 on the eve of high-school graduation for Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), a teenager who joins the Marines as a chance to see the world beyond his neighborhood. Two tours of Southeast Asia later, he’s a bitter, frustrated vet without a job or a future, out of sync with his family, his friends, and the America he thought he was defending. In despair, he gathers up his childhood pals, Skip (Chris Tucker) and José (Freddy Rodriguez), and his numbers-runner mentor, Kirby (Keith David), for one last desperate scheme: sticking up an armored car carrying out-of-circulation currency to the incinerator.
Allen and Albert Hughes were 20 years old when their debut feature, Menace II Society, came out two years ago; their youth didn’t make much difference there, but it really hurts Dead Presidents, which relies on hand-me-down 1970s revivalismnonstop soul oldies on the soundtrack, a veritable runway show of pimp fashionto recreate an era the brothers never experienced. Sure, directors make films all the time about periods they didn’t live throughMel Gibson didn’t travel back to the 13th century to research Braveheart. But he didn’t rely on old Technicolor swashbucklers for his vision of the past, either, and every period detail in Dead Presidents is obviously cribbed from other moviesthe pool-hall milieu from Born on the Fourth of July. From the -derived eight-ball montage to the laughably clichéd overhead shot of a robbery blueprint, there isn’t a single image or moment in Dead Presidents that feels like firsthand experiencelet alone an original thought.
That might not matter so much if the filmmakers worked from a core of empathy or honest feeling, but Dead Presidents is as emotionally comatose as it is stylistically hyperactive. Scenes that might illuminate relationships between the characters are brushed aside. When Anthony tells his mother he’s joined the Corps, the movie skips whatever discussions might follow among the family members. We don’t even see the moment Anthony returns home to his parents.
As in the wildly overpraised Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers use the social trappings of the plot merely as an excuse to create showy, violent set pieces. Anthony goes to Vietnam primarily so the directors can stage war footage with extra blood and guts; when another character becomes a Black Power revolutionary, the development is used only to put a gun in her hand at a crucial juncture. The movie’s lack of historical or emotional perspective is maddeningwe never see what Anthony’s ideals are, so we have no idea how they’re supposedly betrayed in Vietnam. And the Hugheses’ famous wisecrack about Spike Lee needing to go to “ending school” boomerangs on them here: Dead Presidents collapses in a heap of vignettes so dramatically underdeveloped they suggest a need for ending pre-school.
The complaint that has dogged American movies for the past three decades is that American directors care far more about style than substance. When the target was a movie as original and affecting as Bonnie and ClydeTaxi Driver or Do the Right Thing, the argument seemed like sour grapes from critics and filmmakers who resented the American directors’ technical proficiency. However, with the rise of a whole generation of film-school whiz kids like the Hughes Brothers, who have a hundred flashy ways of saying nothing, the criticism seems more valid than ever. Why make a movie just for the sake of making a movieor worse, remaking one? What Allen and Albert Hughes and their frustratingly gifted peers need to learn can’t be taught in any school: an interest in something besides flickering images.
For all its grandiose ambitions, Dead Presidents is ultimately the most crass kind of exploitation flick: one that uses real sufferingof Vietnam vets, of addicts, of struggling familiesto lend a cachet of significance to someone’s artistic noodling. This kind of nihilism from young men with a glowing future is galling. Then again, it may be that the only things Allen and Albert Hughes give a damn about other than movies are those dead presidents up there onscreen.Jim Ridley
Since the rise of John Wayne, the conventional wisdom on action stars has been that audiences prefer actors who remain solid and stillthat they’re drawn to a calm center amidst all the mayhem onscreen. In just two filmslast month’s Desperado and the just released Antonio Banderas has tested that theory and found it wanting. Banderas twitches, fidgets and paces through his two action roles, his characters’ instincts so heightened that they keep his body shaking. Although at times over the top (especially in ), his mannerisms are undeniably magnetic. Channeling Mel Gibson’s manic Lethal Weapon style into performances that are intense frenetic, Banderas could be on the verge of changing the action acting formula that has been in place for more than 50 years.
is an apt ceremony for the changing of the guard. Banderas plays hot young hit man Miguel Bain, out to usurp the standing of the number-one guy in “the business”one Robert Rath, played by Sylvester Stallone in his best performance since . Stallone, definitely an actor of the old stoic school, has often played “smart” characters, but this is the first film in years where he actually appears to be . He portrays Rath so deeply and sympathetically that he almost makes the old-school action hero seem fresh again.
The fine actress Julianne Moore rounds out the cast, playing a computer expert/assassin target named Elektra. Moore also gives her clichéd character a fresh spin, downplaying the “tough victim” angle and concentrating instead on the exhilaration Elektra feels at being jerked into danger.
Capturing the three actors’ unique approaches is director Richard Donner, who minimizes the incomprehensible blurry-zoom-quick-cut style that he practically invented. Instead, he tries for a more brooding, somber mood, with lots of long shots of misty gray landscapes.
The ambitions of the players are noble, but what’s troubling about is that they’re applying all their energies toward a story that, even if it were tackled by Orson Welles, would never be anything more than just plain silly. I mean, reallya struggle to see who’ll be the top assassin? Who votes on that particular pollthe other assassins, or sportswriters?
Screenwriters Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski and Brian Helgeland, inspired by the comic-bookish vogue for master criminals and superheroes, have strung together a series of scenes with “neat” premises but no follow-through. An early shoot-out in a cemetery imagines that 1. highly trained bodyguards, after their client has been shot, wouldn’t think to pursue either a suspicious-looking groundskeeper or a man with his arm in an impractically huge, round cast, and 2. the police on the scene would let everybody go without questioning. A later sequence hinges on the idea that Stallone, a conscientious hit man unwilling to kill innocents, would blow up an entire floor of an apartment building to eliminate Banderas (who escapes by shielding himself with a dining-room table and jumping out a three-story window).
What with The Quick and the Dead and Mortal Kombat earlier this year, it’s as though Hollywood screenwriters were starting to swipe ideas from the notebooks of 10-year-old boys. (Coming soon to a theater near youtwo hours of really cool cars of the future!) As long as actors and directors keep attaching their names to projects as juvenile as , no matter how honorable their intentions, Hollywood will remain Neverneverland with a body count.
A Vast Wasteland
Why do intelligent people think they’re being clever, daring and hip by poking fun at TV? Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, scripted by Buck Henry from Joyce Maynard’s novel, gets a fair number of laughs from the story of Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman, in an amusing but one-note performance), a small-market weathergirl who’ll stop at nothing to hit the big time, even if it means planning the murder of her good-natured yahoo of a husband (Matt Dillon). But the movie’s satire of celebrity obsession and tabloid TV is as facile as its targetand, truth be told, a lot of professional talk-show guest Henry’s writing doesn’t cut much deeper than your ordinary movie-of-the-week.
To Die For has some juicy comic performances (notably Illeana Douglas as Suzanne’s hostile sister-in-law), some funny lines, and at least one brilliant image: a woman’s face reproduced over and over on successively smaller TV screens until her identity is obliterated. And yet the movie has little to say beyond stardom is evil and the people who worship it are grubby and venalwhich wasn’t exactly a news flash when Network came out two decades ago, or A Face in the Crowd two decades before that. For laughs and insight, To Die For doesn’t have a patch on the similar The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. And as you’ll recall, that was made for TV.Jim Ridley
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