Dukes, The (United States, 2007)
In recent years, I have complained about the inability of movies to close strongly. Numerous films with promising beginnings and middles have fallen apart at the end. Thankfully, that's not the case with The Dukes, where a satisfying final half-hour redeems the mediocre 60 minutes that precede it. After starting with a lackluster introduction and a by-the-numbers heist sequence, the film concludes with an upbeat and appealing final act that recalls Big Night. And, in something of a surprise for a movie germinating from the pen and camera of perennial bad guy Robert Davi and starring Davi and Chazz Palmineteri, The Dukes has a big heart and no penchant for violence. The rating is a soft PG-13, making this entirely suitable for family viewing. Not since David Lynch went G has there been such an unlikely cinematic occurrence.
In 1963, George (Chazz Palminteri) and Danny (Robert Davi) were on top of the world. Their doo-wop group, The Dukes, had the #1 hit and they were the toast of the town. Now, 45 years later, no one remembers their names and they're fighting to make ends meet working in the kitchen of their aunt's restaurant. They dream of opening a club, but the lack of available cash makes it just that: a dream. Until, that is, Danny happens to be in the right place at the right time. He overhears a phone conversation at the dentist's office about where all the gold for fillings is kept. An audacious plan is hatched, with George and Danny deciding to rob a group of dentists of 35 pounds of the precious metal, thereby solving all their financial woes. Since it's a job for more than two, they bring in a pair of friends: Armond (Frank D'Amico) and Murph (Elya Baskin). Soon, the game's afoot.
For a while, it looks like The Dukes is going to be a relatively straightforward caper movie, but the film differs from typical genre entries in a few details. First, none of the characters are tough guys. George is a sentimental man with a weakness for large women and, even though he prefers one-night stands, he doesn't like hurting his short-term partners in the morning. Danny's #1 goal in life is bonding with his young son, and he genuinely wants his ex-wife to find happiness. The Dukes doesn't spend a lot of time with the traditional crime-planning scenes (although there are a few), and the heist itself is played more for laughs than suspense, although it doesn't become nearly as outrageous as Big Deal on Madonna Street, the all-time funny caper movie. The best part of the movie, however, is what happens after the crime is completed. For a while, around the one-hour mark, The Dukes appears to have hit a dead end. In reality, that's when it starts to get interesting.
With Robert Davi and Chazz Palminteri headlining the cast (Davi also co-wrote and directed), one might expect gunfights, profanity, and all sorts of unpleasantness. But this is a calm, non-threatening motion picture. It avoids violence and the bad words are kept to a minimum. Palminteri is not playing a wiseguy and Davi, perhaps best known as one of the most vicious James Bond villains (License to Kill) is just a father trying to make his son proud. These two are surprisingly effective cast against type, although it takes a little time to warm up to them. During the first fifteen minutes, I kept expecting one or the other to whack someone.
The Dukes is a labor of love for Davi and, in order to get it made, he had to go the independent route. This sort of simple story, with no pyrotechnics or big-name stars, is not the kind of thing Hollywood funds anymore. The return on investment, if there is one, is too low. Davi's inexperience as a director shows. Some of the transitions are sloppy (especially one surrounding a dream sequence) and he displays an inordinate fondness for lazy Susan shots (where the camera spins in circles around a group of characters). Overall, however, it is competently assembled and it gives us an opportunity to see this rogues gallery of tough guys playing ordinary, blue collar individuals. Due to its limited distribution pattern and the fact that it is being released into theaters during the heart of the competitive holiday market, The Dukes may be hard to find on the big screen, but it's worth keeping an eye out for once it reaches DVD.
Dukes, The (United States, 2007)
Cast: Chazz Palminteri, Robert Davi, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank D'Amico, Elya Baskin, Miriam Margolyes, Melora Hardin
Screenplay: Robert Davi, James Andronica
Cinematography: Michael Goi
Music: Nic. tenBroek
U.S. Distributor: CAVU Releasing