The Hughes twins — Albert and Allen — were 20 in 1993 when they directed Menace II Society, a shattering debut film that spoke to a generation about random street violence. Dead Presidents, their follow-up film, goes beyond their direct experience to speak of Vietnam and the trauma of readjustment. But in pushing to craft an epic social document — a black Deer Hunter — the brothers’ reach exceeds their grasp.
Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) is 18 when he joins the Marines in 1968. His buddies from the Bronx, in New York, Skip (Chris Tucker) and José (Freddy Rodriguez), tag along. War trains them to kill. Returning home in 1972, Anthony is changed, and so is his neighborhood: It’s now a sludge of violence, drugs and cynicism. Seduced by a chance for money (dead presidents) and respect, the vets — faces painted white — rob an armored car. What emerges is an uneasy blend of didacticism and juiced-up bloodletting (the brothers don’t know when to stop with the exploding squibs) that bury the film’s message and its good intentions.