Thanks to a sandpapery mug, beady-eyed stare and menacing baritone, actor Robert Davi has carved out a sturdy career in movies and television playing hard cases on one side of the law or the other. So it's pleasant to report that his directorial debut, "The Dukes," while not without problems, at least showcases a tenderness and lightness of spirit that starts with Davi's performance as Danny, a doo-wop singer struggling to make ends meet in an unforgiving world for oldies acts.
Because the actor co-wrote the movie too, one might say an image-shifting campaign is afoot.
Far from their '60s heyday, divorced dad Danny and his Dukes-mate George (Chazz Palminteri) live in a spiral of financial pressures that find them working in the Italian kitchen of their restaurateur aunt (Miriam Margolyes) rather than singing for their supper. And when they do get gigs through their ineffectual manager (Peter Bogdanovich), they're the kind that make a guy with temper issues like Danny act out the perfect tirade to the bathroom mirror before gamely donning a tomato costume for an undignified commercial.
That well-turned scene, and a touchingly melancholic moment when Danny explains to the son he cherishes why he doesn't sing anymore, hint at the bittersweet charmer "The Dukes" could have been.
But unfortunately, a heist movie invades the premises like a heckler during a crooner's performance. Danny, George and their equally hard-luck friends Armond (Frank D'Amico), a wheelchair-bound comic, and Murph (Elya Baskin), a pothead airplane mechanic, hatch a scheme to burglarize a dentist's lab of gold teeth, and while the bumbling operation is supposed to signal the comic desperation of these down-and-out dreamers, it mostly plays like worn-out genre high jinks.
Elsewhere "The Dukes" has fits of feeling amid elements that don't work so well. Palminteri seems born to play the impulsive George but can't sell a running gag about his yen for plus-size women. (Laughs aren't the movie's strong point.)
Perhaps most surprising is that for a movie centered on a doo-wop group -- and boasting a soundtrack with classic acts like the Edsels and the Velvets -- "The Dukes" never digs into the nuts and bolts of what it takes for a group of showbiz survivors to come together and make music. Davi's heartfelt performance makes for a winning solo, but the movie too often lacks harmony.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief sexuality and drug references
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In limited release