2008, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Robert Davi. Starring Robert Davi, Chazz Palminteri, Peter Bogdanovich, Miriam Margolyes, Elya Baskin, Melora Hardin, Frank D’Amico, Bruce Weitz.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Nov. 28, 2008
You might not recognize the name Robert Davi, but there’s very little chance you won’t recognize the face that goes with it. After 30 years as an actor, Davi – he of the sandpaper cheeks, penetrating stare, charcoal-and-whiskey voice, and subdued outer-borough menace – is who Hollywood turns to when a movie or TV show needs a tough guy who’d just as soon elbow you in the larynx as help you with your groceries. So it was a little bit surprising to find that Davi’s debut as a writer and director, The Dukes, was such a genial project, a light comedy almost entirely free of violence or even anger. I can’t see inside the man’s head, but I’m guessing Davi had his fill of being typecast as the baddie and decided that the only way he was going to have a chance to play a true protagonist – in this case a likable schlub more sinned against than sinning – would be to write it himself. The result, divorced dad Danny, won’t make anyone forget Davi’s performances in License to Kill, Die Hard, or The Goonies, but there is a certain pleasure in watching a professional intimidator shake off timeworn affectations and shrug his way toward a quiet and unnoticed midlife redemption. Danny needs that redemption, too; once the leader of a famous doo-wop group called the Dukes but now in his 50s, without money, career, or fame, Danny is desperate to get his life moving again. He and his brother, and fellow Duke, George (Palminteri) are willing to try anything – working in kitchens, prostituting their songs and their pride in humiliating TV commercials, even taking part in an elaborate medical-lab heist – in order to grab something resembling the brass ring. They’re middle-aged men who don’t have the common sense to realize they’re in the midst of an existential crisis, instead smiling and taking life’s punches as they come. As light as a feather and about as memorable, The Dukes is a pet project all the way, just a lark for Davi and his buddies (almost all of whom come from the I-swear-I’ve-seen-that-guy-before school of character acting) to star in and screen for one another like a home movie, a chance to make goofy jokes and indulge their love of doo-wop music and big-boned women and take part in scenes of consequence-free crime in a consequence-free world where even a life of depredation and defeat isn’t anything falsetto vocals and a big plate of pasta can’t fix.