Dead Presidents (1995) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A Vietnam vet adjusts to life after the war while trying to support his family, but the chance of a better life may involve crime and bloodshed.

  • This action film, directed by the Hughes brothers, depicts a heist of old bills, retired from circulation and destined by the government to be "money to burn." However, more broadly, it addresses the issues of Black Americans' involvement in the Vietnam War and their subsequent disillusionment with progress in social issues and civil rights back home in the United States, during the 1960's.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • 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 graduating high school. He is sent to Vietnam, leaving behind a middle-class family, a pregnant girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson), and a small time crook, Kirby (Keith David), who is like a second father.

    Anthony voluntarily joins the military in 1969; his close friend Skip (Chris Tucker) later joined Anthony's squad after flunking out of college, and Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), got drafted into the Army also in 1969. Once in the Marines, Curtis meets the 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 horror of war, losing several fellow Marines during combat. The Marines (specifically, Cleon) also commit atrocities, including summarily executing enemy prisoners and beheading corpses for war trophies -- Cleon, whose father is a preacher, believes he is doing the righteous work of God when he kills enemy personnel. He decapitates the corpse of an NVA soldier and carries the head around as a good-luck totem until Dugan and the squad tell him to dispose of it. Cleon believes that he was forced to bury the squad's good fortune.

    Shortly after, one of their squad is the victim of terror tactics of the North Vietnamese: D'ambrosio (Michael Imperioli), is found disemboweled and castrated alive. While waiting for medevac under fire, Anthony, succumbing to the request of the dying D'ambrosio, gives the man a fatal dose of morphine.

    Later, on another patrol, Betancourt (Clifton Collins Jr) is killed when he triggers 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. Skip and Anthony are later finished with their tours and are sent home.

    When Anthony returns to The Bronx in 1973, he discovers that returning to "normal" life isn't easy or pleasant. He finds his friend Skip, who used drugs during the war, is now a heroin addict and living on several disability funds. Jose, after serving as a demolitions expert, during which he lost his hand, has become a pyromaniac. Cleon is now a devoted minister. 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, he ferociously beats Cowboy with a pool stick. Anthony pesters Juanita into admitting to sleeping with Cutty to provide for their daughter (who may not even be Anthony's). Anthony reconnects with his girlfriend's sister Delilah (a member of the "Nat Turner Cadre", a fictional group similar to the Black Panthers), who has always had a crush on him 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 and all having painted their faces with kabuki-style makeup. Though they plan the heist very carefully, it goes horribly wrong when a policeman stumbles on the scene. The policeman interferes, resulting in Kirby's attacking him, only to be shot in the arm, and Skip's shooting the policeman in the head. The security guards engage the robbers in a gunfight, ending with Anthony and Delilah's killing most and Delilah's dying while saving Anthony as the truck leaves. After Kirby tries to block the truck with his car, Jose makes use of an excessive amount of explosives, destroying the armored car and burning most of the cash. They escape with what money is left, but Jose is killed after being struck by a police car.

    The surviving four try to lie low after the robbery. Cleon however begins handing out cash to members of his congregation, also buying a new Cadillac car which he obviously cannot afford. Anthony and Skip give out presents to poor children on Christmas. Cleon is finally arrested at his church and gives up the other thieves. 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, they are ambushed at Kirby's pool hall by the police and arrested. In court, Anthony is tried, convicted, and sent to prison for 15 years to life. Anthony berates the judge (Martin Sheen), a marine war veteran himself, who also goes so far as to tell him that he'd forgotten the honor the marine corps taught him and calling him a disgrace to any person who put on uniform and served his country. Upon receiving his sentence, Anthony becomes enraged and throws the chair at the judge. After sentencing, Anthony is seen on a police bus and heading to prison.

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