Actor-turned-filmmaker Robert Davi has made a beguilingly delightful and enjoyable debut in the director's chair with The Dukes. It's a wonderfully strange (by Hollywood standards) hybrid of a movie, part heist thriller and all drama, with lots and lots of comedy woven through it, along with a ton of music. Davi -- who originated the idea for the film and co-wrote the script -- draws these seemingly disparate elements together into a coherent whole that manages to recall such varied films as Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street and Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni, and also Floyd Mutrux's American Hot Wax, without mimicking any of them (except Fellini's movies, in the score).
Davi's Danny DePasquale and Chazz Palminteri's George Zucco occupy the center of the action as two well-meaning but not too bright doo wop-singing buddies, who had a couple of hits 40 years ago and desperately want to keep making music in their fifties, but who also know that they have to take desperate measures to try and get their financial lives back on track. That leads them to a penny-ante gold heist that manages to be both excruciatingly funny and extremely suspenseful, mostly because by the time they're inside and in the middle of the caper, the audience actually cares about these characters. And the heist itself is framed in such a way -- in the movie and in the minds of the participants -- that it bumps up hard against issues related to marriage, child support, and the cost of living, and opens all kinds of class-consciousness wounds felt by the participants. They do, indeed, find a solution to their problems, but not by the means or method that they thought would achieve it -- but it, too, is part of a related plot thread that is followed effortlessly in this freewheeling narrative.
Davi manages to have fun, with both the characters' essential good natures and the audience's expectations amid a series of plot complications that don't impede the action or the narrative flow and, in fact, help to pull the story together with a symmetry worthy of classical theater. Not that the latter will matter to many audience members -- the movie is just plain fun -- but it's nice to know that there is some understated complexity in a picture that's this enjoyable; it makes one appreciate the work that went into it, especially in lieu of a large budget, which the producers did not have. And then there's the music and its role in the plot -- the songs are icing on the cake, while the music is the glue that holds the whole picture and the plot together. The interlocking relationships between characters and events are a marvel of comedic and dramatic construction, and all of the performances are note-perfect; this goes also for supporting players Peter Bogdanovich, taking an acting turn and proving still quite good at it; the late Frank D'Amico, who was playing a character tragically close to real life; and comic Elya Baskin. They get specialized help from veteran featured players Bruce Weitz, Joseph Campanella (in a role in which he only speaks Italian), Miriam Margolyes, Melora Hardin, and Elaine Hendrix. The action flows breezily and logically, across a few minor improbabilities that slide right on past, to an eminently satisfying end, in what is essentially a light -- but richly textured -- feel-good movie.
The real key to the success of The Dukes, however, is that one is always convinced that these characters genuinely love their music, and what they do with it (and Davi does a great job on his own singing). That's the side of the picture that ought to resonate with any audience, and seems to stem from the obvious passion that Davi brought to this project, which he first conceived in the 1980s. It flows out from the performances to the soundtrack (a mix of doo wop classics and a pastiche of Nino Rota Fellini-esque orchestral music) to the light-hearted yet serious denouement, in which a performance is invested with a good deal of realistic drama linked to all of these characters we've gotten to know in the preceding 90 minutes. It's worth seeing, maybe more than once, and leads one to look forward to Mr. Davi's next directorial effort.
awards for The Dukes on AllMovie
The Dukes (2007)
Newport Beach International Film Festival