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Film / Dead Presidents

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This 1995 American action/crime drama film, directed by the Hughes Brothers, depicts the heist of millions of US dollars in old bills, retired from circulation and destined by the government to be "money to burn." However, more broadly, it addresses the issues of African Americans' involvement in The Vietnam War, and their subsequent disillusionment with progress in social issues and civil rights back home.

Larenz Tate is Anthony Curtis, a good-natured high school kid in 1960s New York who is enjoying life with his girlfriend, Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson), and his good friends, Skip (Chris Tucker in an early role) and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) and running numbers for a local tough guy, Kirby (Keith David). Those days are not to last, however, as all three of the young friends end up in Vietnam. Following a fairly lengthy and well-done segment in the Nam, all three end up back in the old neighborhood, where Anthony finds adjusting to civilian life difficult. Soon – and rather suddenly – the whole bunch of them are planning an armored car heist with Juanita's sister Delilah (N'Bushe Wright), who also happens to be a radical Black Panther. This turns out to have disastrous consequences.

Film contains examples of

  • Armed Blag: The ultimate action sequence of the movie, a daring plot to knock over an armored car making a drop-off at a Federal Reserve Bank in The Bronx. It completely fails, with gruesome results.
  • Ax-Crazy:
    • Cleon during the war. He commits several executions of NVA and Vietcong POW’s and also cuts off one of their dead heads for a war trophy/souvenir.
    • Dugan has shades of this as well. The headbutting scene is case in point.
  • Badass Preacher, Also Cleon during the war. Unfortunately, he turned into a typical born-again Baptist preacher after the war.
    Cleon:[After blasting a Viet Cong POW in the head, killing him] Now you're good...Now Jesus loves you.
  • Berserk Button: Anthony's is pretty close to the surface following his return from Vietnam, which is partly what gets him into so much trouble.
  • Call-Back: Skip freezes up during the last battle in Vietnam and as a result, the squad leader Dugan gets killed by the NVA. Flash forward to the heist in the Bronx and Cleon is the one to freeze up as the robbery goes to hell and as a result of him freezing up? A clean and good young black cop gets killed as result.
  • The Caper: The group of veterans rob the Federal Reserve of the Bronx.
  • Chronic Villainy: Poor Cleon tries to reform his murderous ways.
  • Cop Killer: Anthony and his gang kill seven policemen in the bank robbery.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Like, fuck, man, these motherfuckers use the word "fuck" every fucking chance they get.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • D’ambrosio being disemboweled and castrated alive by Vietcong soldiers. He’s found shockingly alive by his fellow Marines, but he begs Anthony to give him a final shot of morphine to put him out of his misery.
    • Jose gets hit by an out-of-control police car and then gets crushed as the car crashes into the alley wall.
  • Dirty Cop: Several members of the NYPD are involved with Kirby in running numbers and take a share of the money he generates. This doesn't help him when the police raid his place to arrest him near the end.
  • Downer Ending: Anthony is sentenced to life in prison for armed robbery and murder. Skip dies from a heroin overdose and is discovered by policemen raiding his home. Delilah is killed in a gunfight during the heist. During the getaway, Jose runs down an alley while a squad car pursues him. He shoots and kills the driver, but the alley is a dead end and he gets smashed between the wall and the car. We can also assume that Kirby either dies or gets captured and incarcerated just like Anthony.
  • Dramatic Irony: The Money to Burn ends up getting burnt up when they use too much explosive. Instead of blowing off the door, it blows up the entire truck and they have to salvage the few bills that are blown clear.
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: At Anthony's sentencing, his lawyer tries to argue for clemency based on his client's experiences in Vietnam. The judge (himself a veteran [of World War II]) has none of it, bluntly says that only proves Anthony forgot some very important things he should have learned there and made himself a disgrace to the uniform, and says he will not allow Anthony or his lawyer to use Vietnam as a cop-out.
  • From Camouflage to Criminal: Much of the main cast are Vietnam vets who wind up involved in crime after the war.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The latter half seems to deconstruct heist movies. Despite the veterans laying out a careful plan of action, the film reminds us that This Is Reality. Thanks to all of their individual issues, the veterans prove to be ill-fit for performing a heist. As a result, almost nothing goes as planned, several innocents are killed, most of the money ends up getting burned up (even though they are able to salvage $360,000) and all of the participants of the heist end up either dead or incarcerated.
  • Gorn: The Vietnam segments and the heist itself.
  • Guilt-Ridden Accomplice: Cleon, he rats out the others as well.
  • Guns Akimbo: Delilah during the heist with two 1911's.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: At the end, Anthony is arrested and is found dead guilty at his trial for multiple first-degree murders, robbery, arson and evasion of the crime scene. Anthony then pleads to the judge to show leniency on his sentencing that he faced economic hardship and "I did what I had to do to survive".
  • Idiot Ball:
    • D'ambrosio wandering away from the team in the bushes to take a shit. Being at war and you chose to go without anybody watching your back? The NVA sadly takes advantage of this by completely tearing apart D’ambrosio.
    • Jose splitting off from the group and running into a dead-end alleyway while being chased by a squad car. Also the fact that he doesn’t take the time to hide duck and cover in the little space areas in the alley while the squad car is all over the place (due to Joe shooting and killing the driver) which leads to his death.
    • Anthony, Kirby and Skip choosing to remain in the Bronx instead of getting the hell out of town or the country. After a botched robbery at a Federal Building, the deaths of Federal employees and cops you would think they wouldn’t take any chances of staying around to get caught and especially knowing that Cleon could be a liability that they would want to eliminate any loose ends? The guys don’t take the chance to blow town or eliminate all the loose ends and still remain in the Bronx. They even use the stolen money to give Christmas presents to kids. This of course leads to Cleon ratting them out and them getting arrested.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
  • Justified Criminal: Constantly being nagged at by his ungrateful and unfaithful baby mama, fired from his job and with not much help from the government that he nearly got killed several times trying to serve? It’s easy to understand Anthony’s turn to the life of crime.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: After the heist, the surviving gang members use some of their loot to buy Christmas presents for poor children.
  • Karma Houdini: Cutty never gets any comeuppance for humiliating or attacking Anthony. The last scene he's in has him holding the aforementioned marine at gunpoint and bragging about how he took care of Juanita and his daughter while he was struggling through a war and fighting for his country. His actions contribute to Anthony's strained relationship with Juanita and his path to crime.
  • The Load:
    • Skip is the least competent member of the recon team and it shows as a result when he freezes up during the final battle against the Vietcong getting Dugan killed. Anthony himself even says he didn’t think Skip was really cut out for recon.
    • Also Cleon. He doesn't do anything during the bank heist other than draw a cop's suspicion. When the cop asks him politely what he’s waiting for, he starts spewing Blatant Lies to him about the bus schedule and when the cop sees the robbery go down? Cleon just stands there and lets him go towards the scene which forces Kirby to fire at the officer and the officer ends up firing back and hits Kirby in the shoulder, and Skip is forced to blow his brains out all over the sidewalk, mailbox and the wall. That could have all been avoided if Cleon would have just knocked out the cop, or come up with a better lie, or just acted calmer.
  • Looks Like Cesare: The robbers' face paint during the heist.
  • Malcolm Xerox: Played straight with Delilah, but understandable given the time period.
  • Mercy Kill: Anthony gives D'ambrosio an overdose of morphine after he's been disemboweled by the Viet Cong and begging to die.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Anthony doesn’t say it out loud but his facial expressions says it all after giving D’ambrosio the fatal shot of morphine to put him out of his misery.
    • Cleon feels this way after the robbery, feeling that “God will never forgive him”. One could argue the reason why Cleon stupidly blew his cover was because he wanted to get arrested to try redeem himself for his sins.
    • At the end while being transferred to the penitentiary, Anthony looks out the window clearly regretting everything that went down and what could have been.
  • Never My Fault:
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The DVD cover and all of the promotional material would have you believe that the heist would be the largest focal point of the movie. In fact, the film spends more time on events leading up to the heist that it does on the heist and the aftermath.
  • Nightmare Sequence: Curtis suffers one which overlaps with his job as a butcher, and his violent Vietnam flashbacks. Which makes for a bone-chilling segment. Brrr...
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown:
    • Anthony gives one to Cowboy in the pool hall after one too many snippy remarks.
    • He also gives one to one of the security guards during the robbery, which kills him.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Several instances of this occurs throughout the film: Delilah witnessing her mom pull up earlier than expected with Anthony and Juanita in the bed.
    • The entire recon team’s reaction to Cleon cutting off the head of a Vietcong solider.
    • The team finding D’ambrosio disemboweled and castrated alive by the Vietcong.
    • Batencourt’s reaction to stepping on a landmine before he explodes. Also Skip freezing up as his body parts land near him.
    • Kirby and Skip seeing the cop approach Cleon and him not subduing the officer.
    • Jose as he gets hit by the police car.
    • Anthony witnessing Cleon get arrested and saying “Oh Shit Cleon!” It’s not helped by Cleon ratting the rest of the guys out for the robbery so his reaction was very justified.
  • Plethora of Mistakes
    Anthony: The whole plan was fucked up! We ain't do shit right out there, man. Shit.
  • Psycho Party Member: Cleon was this during his stint in 'Nam. Dougan also shows heavy shades of this. Interestingly enough Kirby doesn't want Delilah to be in on The Caper because he thinks she is one of these, saying:
    "Oh, no, no, no, no. I don't want none of them revolutionary niggas involved."
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The judge at the ends gives a brutal one to Anthony when his lawyer tries using his experiences at Vietnam to get him a more lenient sentence:
    Anthony's lawyer: I realize that my client had a difficult time adjusting when he...
    Judge: Excuse me, Counsel. l, too, was a marine... and I served my country proudly in World War II, a real war, I may add...
    Anthony's lawyer: Yes, Your Honor...
    Judge: I'm not finished yet, please. I received the Purple Heart at Guadalcanal. Now, this young man has obviously forgotten some very... fundamental things like decency and dedication and honor... everything the corps taught us. He is a disgrace to everyone that has ever put on that uniform... and I will not permit you or him to use the Vietnam War as a cop-out here.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here
    • After the final battle against the Vietcong literally goes to shit with Dugan and Batencourt getting killed, Cleon orders everybody to move out ASAP.
    • Kirby gets out of the numbers game when the cops starts cracking down on him for more money, saying “he wasn’t going to bust ass paying sending some greedy cop kids to college”.
    • Both Anthony and Kirby try to escape to Mexico after Cleon gets arrested and snitches on everybody. Unfortunately the cops raid the club and arrests the both of them.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Anthony has recurring nightmares after he gets back to the States about all the bloodshed he saw.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Anthony summons Cleon on to the heist but he’s hesitant at first because he still holds a grudge against Skip for freezing up back in Vietnam, getting his best friend and squad leader Dugan killed along with the fact he's on drugs. He ultimately agrees to it but the bad blood between the two is heavy.
  • Unwanted Assistance: Cleon's reaction during the heist, when a police officer (very kindly) offers to call up his precinct to check the local bus schedule for him.
  • Would Hit a Girl:
    • As Kirby is kicking the shit out of a dude who owes him money, his wife pulls a revolver on him. Kirby admires that she has more heart than her punk ass old man before cold-clocking her and taking her gun.
    • Anthony gets fed up with Juanita’s bitchy and ungrateful attitude and grabs her around the neck HARD to shut her up. She tries to stop Anthony from leaving by continuously grabbing him despite the fact he told her to stop twice and then for a THIRD time grabs him and he grabs her by the neck once more with way MORE force and threatens to kill her if she ever runs up on him again.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: A remake of a film based on the true story of a group of black Vietnam vets who pulled a heist.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Anthony breaks down in anger after the judge sentences him for fifteen years to life in prison for the murder of the policemen and robbing a bank car. He throws a chair at the judge and angrily protests that he served and fought for the United States in the Vietnam War to no avail. As he boards a bus for incarceration he can't do anything but regret and reflect on what he could've done differently.
  • Villain Protagonist: Anthony and his gang plan to rob an armored car at the bank.