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Dead Presidents is based partly on the real life experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland, whose true story was detailed in the book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans by Wallace Terry. Certain characters from the film are based on real acquaintances of Kirkland, who served time in prison after committing robbery in facepaint.
In the spring of 1969, Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) is about to graduate from high school. However, Anthony is not going to college, but needing to get away from home to find himself, he enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps shortly after graduation. He is sent to Vietnam, leaving behind his middle-class family, a pregnant girlfriend (Rose Jackson), and small time crook Kirby (Keith David), who is like a second father.
Anthony's close friend Skip (Chris Tucker) later joins Curtis's squad after flunking out of college, and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) is drafted into the Army. Once in the Marines, Curtis meets gung-ho lieutenant Dugan (Jaimz Woolvett), and his wartime friend, Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), a religious yet deadly staff sergeant. During their tour in Vietnam as members of a Force Recon unit, they experience the horrors of war, losing several fellow Marines during combat. The Marines (especially Cleon) also commit atrocities, including executing enemy prisoners and beheading corpses for war trophies. One of their squad, D'Ambrosio (Michael Imperioli), is the victim of the North Vietnamese, and is disemboweled and castrated. While waiting for medivac, Anthony, succumbing to the request of the dying D'Ambrosio, gives the man a fatal dose of morphine. One of their squad is killed by stepping on a land mine and a night ambush ensues, with NVA troops and half of Anthony's team killed; Dugan is killed after Skip "freezes up" during the gunfight when he is ordered to cover him. Cleon manages to hold off the enemy long enough for Anthony and the last of the crew to escape.
When Anthony returns to The Bronx in 1973, after four years of service and presumably multiple combat tours in Vietnam, attaining the rank of sergeant, he finds returning to "normal" life is impossible. He finds his friend Skip, who used drugs during the war, is now a heroin addict. Jose, after serving as a demolitions expert, during which he lost his hand, has become a pyromaniac. Cleon is now a devoted minister. And Kirby has since become legitimate due to police cracking down on his criminal business. Anthony is laid off from his job in a butcher shop and finds himself unable to support his daughter. During a pool game at Kirby's, Cowboy (Terrence Howard) makes fun of Anthony and informs him that Cutty (Clifton Powell) was having sex with his girlfriend Juanita while he was deployed in Vietnam. Anthony then beats Cowboy with a pool stick out of rage. Anthony pesters Juanita into admitting to sleeping with Cutty to provide for their daughter. Anthony meets his girlfriend's sister Delilah (N'Bushe Wright), a member of the "Nat Turner Cadre", a fictional group similar to black revolutionaries. Delilah has always had a crush on Anthony and decides to help him with a plot he devises. Anthony, Kirby, Skip, Jose, Delilah, and Cleon plan to rob an armored car making a stop at the Noble Street Federal Reserve Bank of the Bronx.
Skip and Cleon act as lookouts, Kirby is the getaway driver, Delilah waits in a dumpster across the street, and Anthony and Jose hide under the loading docks, all armed. Though they plan the heist very carefully, it goes horribly wrong when a policeman stumbles on the scene. The policeman interferes, talking to Cleon. Cleon says he's waiting for a city bus. The officer thinks it's odd since it's way too early for any buses coming and decides to check the bus schedule for Cleon. Anthony and Jose decide to ambush the armed guards. But the driver sees the two coming out armed, from his rear-view mirror. As soon as he alerts his fellow officers, Anthony holds one officer at gunpoint, while Jose grabs one bag stack with money and officers begin shooting at Jose. Jose hide behind cover. Another officer is about to shoot Anthony, but Delilah hops out of the dumpster and screams while she shoots the officer dead. This distracting Anthony, the officer tries to knock the shotgun out of Anthony's hands. They struggle for the gun, and Anthony headbutts the officer and pistol whips him, wounding him severely.
The officer talking to Cleon, hears all the commotion and takes out his gun. This results in Kirby hopping out the car and shooting at the officer, but, Kirby is shot in the arm, and Skip comes up behind the officer and shoots him in the head, killing him. Jose quickly grabs a detonator, an explosive device, and hops on the moving truck, with the driver trying to leave the scene. Kirby gets in his car and blocks the truck's entry. Kirby quickly hops out the car and runs as Jose places the explosive device in the back of the van. Jose jumps off and the truck driver slams into Kirby's car and Jose detonates the bomb, blowing up the truck, killing the driver and burning much of the cash. Anthony, Skip, Kirby, and Cleon are furious that Jose burned most of the money, but quickly manage to grab over $300,000. The explosion attracts more officers and as one is about to shoot Anthony Delilah shoots and misses him and the officer shoots her dead. In a fury of rage, Anthony shoots him and then beats to death the officer that he had pistol whipped earlier when he revives and reaches for his gun. The remaining crew splits up, as Jose runs in an alleyway with the cash, a police cruiser chases him. Jose kills the driver, but the officer in the passenger seat uses the dead officer to drive Jose into against a brick wall killing him.
Anthony decides that Jose's cut goes to his wife Marisol and their kids and Delilah's cut goes to the poor children on Christmas. Kirby wants to kill Cleon before he gets arrested and rats them out. Anthony, who wants no more bloodshed, tells Kirby, he'll take care of it but Cleon (after being arrested) gives up the other thieves as part of a plea bargain. NYPD officers storm Skip's apartment to find that he has died of a heroin overdose. As Kirby and Anthony prepare to leave the country police show up, and Kirby tells Anthony to run, fighting off the officers with the pool sticks, but Anthony is cornered and he surrenders.
In court, Anthony is tried, convicted, and sent to prison for 15 years to life. Anthony berates the judge (Martin Sheen), a war veteran himself, who goes so far as to call him a disgrace to any person who put on uniform and served his country. Upon receiving his sentence, Anthony gets angry and throws a chair at the judge. The films ends as Anthony boards a prison bus.
The film depicts the struggle of returning war veterans who are neglected by the US government. Many veterans of the Vietnam War were denied benefits, compensation, and recognition for their efforts in serving their country. Anthony is no exception; upon his return to the Bronx, he is unable to find gainful employment to support his daughter, born while he was on tour in Vietnam. His friend Kirby, a Korean War veteran, who lost a leg during combat, is a man who turned to crime to sustain a living.
|Larenz Tate||Anthony Curtis|
|Rose Jackson||Juanita Benson|
|N'Bushe Wright||Delilah Benson|
|Alvaleta Guess||Mrs. Benson|
|James Pickens Jr.||Mr. Curtis|
|Jenifer Lewis||Mrs. Curtis|
|Ryan Williams||Young Revolutionary|
|Rodney Winfield||Mr. Warren|
Dead Presidents received mixed reviews from critics, as it currently holds a 45% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 31 reviews.
|Year||Album||Peak chart positions||Certifications|
|1996||Dead Presidents, Vol. 2
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