A movie that I seemed only able to fully process when I was nearly asleep. With one set of characters, this 1995 movie is made up of broken pieces of disconnected stories about a life broken apart by bad luck, crime and poverty, and war. The themes themselves are deep, but the way they are told is often shallow, as in this work.
The intro of burning money evokes excess, and the frivolity of money. The name suggests that this will be a basic crime film. The exposition is interesting as a group of men in the back of a dairy truck head home at dawn. The protagonist is just a child, too young to even drive, but still working as an illegal bookie for the burly and violent owner of a pool hall and bar. We then find out that the protagonists family is better off, and that they want him, not to follow a life of crime, but go to college and then even graduate school.
He instead suggests to them that he become a US Marine, and this exposes the familial path with the Korean War veteran father, and the risks, as this film is set during the Vietnam War. The theme of a struggle between a clean life and a life of crime, or even violence is thus brought into view.
This hardly has any time to develop at all before he is actually in Vietnam, portrayed in all of its brutality. To watch this on the day that Afghanistan fell again to the Taliban is heartwrenching, and reiterates many of the mistakes we failed to learn from.
The film is filled with the use of lighting to set moods and scenery, but it totally lacks any subtlety whatsoever and its use is almost as corny as some of the characters themselves. Insane face paint and unrealistic fight scenes mark the battles and the crime scenes later.
He returns from the war with little to show for it, in terms of money or skills. His old friends are struggling, and the young ones who went to war came back as heroin addicts. The government left the veterans with nothing, and there is an underdeveloped undercurrent of African American anger at the government for involving them as part of America’s youth in the high politics of the era with which they had little say or interaction. Many of the veterans have severe PTSD which materializes at their lowest points, and which they can’t even identify. I can say that with a grandfather who fought in the Korean was and was also scarred by the bloodshed, and left with nothing for his service leaving him embittered at the military and the government, this disillusionment with the state is palpable.
The late 1970s also see the crumbling cities as New York portrayed here faces drugs, prostitution, and poverty. The protagonist’s relationship with his daughter and her mother are strained by the mother’s lingering connection with a psychotic pimp who highlights the protagonists financial and psychic poverty, and his inability to provide for the child.
This masculine compulsion to either provide or lash out is reinforced by the mother’s financial stress and asking him to get money “like a real man,” suggesting that he is not one. His complex is exacerbated by the PTSD and heavy drinking.
His failure to thrive emasculates him, takes away is desire to maintain an alpha status, and crushes him. After being knocked down a flight of stairs and having a gun put in his mouth by the pimp, the relationship incinerates in a spectacular fight where he chokes the mother of his child. After this, he is resigned to crime.
At several points, I wondered when this movie would be over. The stories at a certain point become so temporally distant, they are disconnected from one another and seem to be too shallow in some aspects and drag along in others.
Themes like African American resistance to the war are superficial and appear for seconds or minutes, and the violence and crime are underdeveloped and often unrealistic. The deepest parts are the darkness left behind in the veterans after the war, but those too read more like a subplot than a real theme.
The movie is quick moving and compelling, but some of the themes could have been more thoroughly developed while others left out entirely.
Rating: Three desiccating heads.
Dead Presidents is a movie I thought was ending about 3 times before it actually did. It is a long slog of a movie about living (and sometimes dying) in poverty and the obstacles that come with it.
Released in 1995, the film holds up relatively well in terms of its filming. Though it does suffer from some issues such as its length, coming in at one minute under two hours it isn’t too long, but like its long title scroll, it tends to drag.
There are interesting and satisfying moments. Characters, some anyway, go through something that could be called character development, though most are in a state of permanent arrested development. Being set in the 1960s and 70s there are ample opportunities to show the brutality of the Vietnam War and the horrible effect it had on the people who fought it. And oh boy does it show some gore!
From severing of heads to our old pal Christopher Moltisanti, aka Michael Imperioli, splayed out with his intestines in his lap the barbarity of war is on full display. The violence doesn’t stop there either.
When the story moves back to New York we also see quite a bit of violence, including bar fights, domestic violence, and even shootouts with the cops, all depicted in blood drenched butchery. Another theme that the movie hammers home is the seemingly inescapable chasm of poverty.
Our protagonist, well maybe anti-hero?, Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate), is in a constant struggle against poverty once he returns from Vietnam. Now that he has returned to his family he must deal with how to support them, all while battling his demons, often with rage and addiction. He must also decide what it means to be a man, husband, and father.
In pursuit of this, he finds menial work for lousy pay, something many in America currently can relate to. Having been at least in the periphery of semi-organized crime most of his life, he used to be a bookie for Kirby (Keith David) when he was in high school, he eventually gets *Al Pacino voice* pulled back in with the promise of quick cash. This is obviously another common theme in America where millions have essentially been taught their whole lives that hustle culture will make you rich. If you just work enough gig economy jobs, you might one day make enough money to pay your health care deductible and move your toddler out of your roach infested apartment, hell your mortal enemy may even stop piping your baby momma.
Of course like in real life, meritocracy is mostly a fabrication made by trust fund kids to explain how they worked so hard to turn their inheritance into even more money, but it’s certainly not the fact that the US doesn’t guarantee health care or taxes capital gains at lower rates that a fucking bartender’s salary.
The ragtag bunch of friends teams up to fight the man by getting some dead presidents, even more punny because the bills they want to steal are slated to be taken out of circulation. Yes this movie’s sense of human is quite slapstick, but it does feature a large supporting role by Chris Tucker (as Skip), so maybe that shouldn’t surprise anyone (though Skip is one of the more robust characters in the movie, which is either a compliment or insult based on how you look at it). The old friends even team up with another buddy from the Black Liberation Army, and one of their old psychotic friend from the war. The rag tag bunch could be seen as a metaphor for the struggle of the impoverished against the system that is working to keep them in subjugation, though I’m not sure if the movie is deep enough for that.
I won’t spoil the movie as I usually do, I’m trying to be a better person, though perhaps I should as it is nowhere near the top of my recommended movie list. Suffice it to say that the ending is not very satisfying. It leaves you with a bit of an empty feeling, then again so does American capitalism, so maybe I’m being too harsh on the filmmakers here. The films does also capture the nightmare that it is to be poor in a country as opulently wealthy and deeply devoted to austerity as America is, and shows, if only just a peak, the kind of hell that is war.
I don’t know that I can really recommend this movie, it’s just ok. It has glimmers of potential that it too often squanders by overstaying its welcome. If you’re trying to feel existential dread and uncontrollable anger maybe give it a watch.
2 gravity defying haircuts/unsuccessfully trying to secure the bag