It seem alright to give The Dukes a pass for its supposedly modest goals, as many critics have done up to this point. But in terms of narrative themes, this movie is more ambitious than it initially seems. There are a lot of things going on in The Dukes, a modest but still turgid dramedy directed by longtime character actor Robert Davi, and some of them are legitimately interesting and unique. For starters, it plays with the ever-present motif of old-world stars in the YouTube era in a different way. The film’s opening shot has a newspaper—that dying old thing—front and center, and the opening sequence in an old-fashioned diner could be a of Goodfellas-era wise guy scene (even if the cinematography is straight out of the first day of film class). It is only after we leave the restaurant that we learn what’s really going on—a bunch of washed-up '60s doo-wop stars are looking to make a buck in a time where there’s no demand for anything old-fashioned. The set up is smart, and the film subtlety mixes old-world and new-world imagery in a manner that's hard to ignore.
The second item of interest is the way The Dukes plays with the Italian gangster film stereotype. The movie’s second act is a straightforward heist movie, except the heist is executed by a bunch of incompetents with no criminal record due to pure financial necessity. Rather than belong a heavily organized crime racket with vicious intentions, these crooks are following the age-old question of whether it’s better to rob a loaf of bread to feed a family. Or in this case, get your son’s dental work paid for.
Unfortunately, these relatively new developments get lost in a wave of schmaltz and cliché, as Davi’s direction and writing never goes beyond children’s story level of complexity. Even with the story of a partner who sleeps with plus-sized women (the ubiquitous Chazz Palminteri) a hapless agent getting the act consistently scammed (Peter Bogdonavich, who shouldn’t need to take roles like this any longer), and constantly disappointing their Aunt Vee (Miriam Margoyles), as incompetent chefs in her restaurant, this is more of a PG than PG-13 kind of movie, both in its simplistic sense of humor and its graceless execution. The film is poorly shot, poorly paced, and lazily chopped together. Everything that succeeds about the film succeeds through cheese. Despite the it-ain’t-like-it-used-to-be appeal (or perhaps because of it), The Dukes seems like it really lacks a purpose in the current film climate; even the cheese seems spoiled and left in the fridge a few years too long.
It didn’t have to be this way. Despite a somewhat flat opening act, once the heist portion of the story kicks in, the film seems like it could be something that goes in an interesting new direction. Instead, the final 30 minutes takes a single note of redemption. While that’s a fine note to close out a film, the mood does not shift in the slightest for an ungodly long stretch, producing an ending that gets boring very quickly. Despite being and feeling like a short movie, The Dukes seems like it drags on forever.
The sagginess of The Dukes is particularly disappointing because on the whole, it’s hard to find a film that approaches all the territory this film covers. There are elements of Big Night, Small Time Crooks, Lonesome Jim, and even Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead to be found, but none that quite get the film’s entire range. I wish this kind of movie could succeed more artistically, but to do so, it would have to rely more on genuine ethical struggle and complex characterization than on sentimentality. As it stands, this film seems dated even for the modern time. Davi’s done a lot of work through the years, but The Dukes seems more like a film by someone whose seen a lot of better directors do good work and wants in. Unfortunately, he’s not going to win over any smart people with this film.
Produced and directed by Robert Davi; written by Mr. Davi and James Andronica; director of photography, Michael Goi; edited by James Cypherd; music by Nic. tenBroek; production designer, Derek Hughes; released by Cavu Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. WITH: Robert Davi (Danny DePasquale), Chazz Palminteri (George Zucco), Peter Bogdanovich (Lou Fiola), Frank D’Amico (Armond Kaputo), Miriam Margolyes (Aunt Vee), Elya Baskin (Murph Sinitsky) and Bruce Weitz (Toulio). Photos by Christel Golden.