The Vietnam War movie has been a favorite pulpit of white directors for years, but only recently, after nearly a decade of "New Black Cinema," are African-American filmmakers in a position to screen their own readings of the Vietnam experience. Earlier this year, the earnest, awkward THE WALKING DEAD followed a largely black platoon through jungle hell. Now the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert (MENACE II SOCIETY), offer a far more ambitious, and equally disappointing, account of the war and its repercussions at home. Despite an ad campaign that sells the movie as an urban crime saga, DEAD PRESIDENTS, which premiered at the New York Film Festival and opens nationwide on Oct. 16, is unquestionably a Vietnam film. It's set in 1968, exactly the point at which the middle-class white rebellion hit college campuses -- and, not coincidentally, the point at which the U.S. military began to understand that it was now running a holding operation destined for failure. Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) is a nice black kid from the Bronx, Class of '68. Poster-boy handsome, he looks like a young Colin Powell, with regular features, respectably short hair and a smile that means it. But unlike everybody's favorite general, Anthony is without ambition or a road map to life. So he drifts, running numbers for the local racketeer to make a few bucks between Saturday nights, and eventually enlists, mostly because the Army is the only ticket anyone's offering out of town. Transported -- via a stylish, 2001-style jump cut -- from the Bronx to Quang Tri, he joins a predominantly African-American unit led by a white officer in blackface camouflage. Anthony's journey from petty criminal to jungle grunt and back again is charted haphazardly by the Brothers Hughes, whose first film so chillingly captured the spiral of violence among urban black adolescents. While DEAD PRESIDENTS bears comparison to THE DEER HUNTER, adding race to what Michael Cimino saw as a class issue, it lacks the assurance with which Cimino lured his ethnic white steelworkers out of central Pennsylvania and into confusion and controversy. DEAD PRESIDENTS is good when it doesn't announce itself, as in its initial military scenes establishing Anthony's misidentification with American hubris. It effectively lays out the unrealistic burdens placed on black line soldiers, who are expected to leave a slaughterhouse where the killer is king and resume paying rent with a dead-end job and a smile. The movie meanders, however, before it sends Anthony to 'Nam, and even more so after it brings him back home, where the Hughes Brothers keep feinting down alleyways marked Milestones. And DEAD PRESIDENTS careens out of control when it takes a sudden turn into caper territory. In the film's final movement, Anthony leads a collection of Vietnam vets and Bronx irregulars, made up in whiteface and looking for all the world like French mimes with side arms, in an assault on a Federal Reserve bank. Their goal is a shipment of worn-out currency notes -- the dead presidents of the title -- slated for incineration. (Anthony's such a nice kid that he plans to make his big score against American racism by stealing money nobody will miss.) The Hughes Brothers haven't lost the visual savvy they displayed in MENACE II SOCIETY, and much might be forgiven if screenwriter Michael Henry Brown could produce dialogue somewhat subtler than "So, we just graduated from high school." But dialogue, situations and characters are sadly ham-handed throughout. Keith David is a caricature of a small-time fixer, while Rose Jackson, as Anthony's pouty princess of a wife, Juanita, mostly whines and preens. N'Bushe Wright is scarcely more credible as Juanita's sister, who wears "Free Angela" buttons and greets the returning Anthony by chirping, "Hi, welcome to the Revolution." Chris Tucker is better as Anthony's buddy, Skip, who veers from wacko to junkie. And Bokeem Woodbine plays Cleon, a preacher's son gone renegade, with more eye-popping gusto than finesse. At least Larenz Tate, who displayed startling screen charisma as the psychotic O-Dog in MENACE, turns in a thoughtful performance, persuasively managing the transition from naive kid to embittered vet. Judging by DEAD PRESIDENTS and his previous film, THE INKWELL, the only thing standing between 20-year-old Tate and mainstream stardom is a decent script.