The Washington Times - October 2, 2008, 11:02AM

The 2008 American Film Renaissance Festival kicked off last night with the Washington, DC premiere of “The Dukes.” The directorial debut of Robert Davi, “The Dukes” is the story of a doo-wop group struggling to maintain relevance in the 21st century. Their heyday decades in the past, The Dukes (fronted by brothers Danny (Mr. Davi) and George (Chazz Palminteri)) try to parlay their past fame into get-rich-quick schemes orchestrated by their manager, Lou (Peter Bogdanovich).

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The group’s problems are oddly tooth-focused: Danny needs money to pay of his son’s dentist; George needs to get an incisor replaced. While at the dentist’s office, Danny overhears that all of the dentists in the region pool their resources to buy gold in bulk. When George gets wind of this, he concocts a plan to steal the gold, pay off their debts, and start a restaurant.

Needless to say, things don’t go quite according to plan.

“The Dukes” is an interesting melange of the family comedy and the heist film, set against the backdrop of decreased prosperity. Though completed a year ago, Mr. Davi’s film foresaw the tougher economic times we’re currently entering; it feels far more relevant now than it might have twelve months ago, when it started making the festival rounds. “The Dukes” strikes a couple of false notes — the heist goes off in a slightly sillier fashion than I might have liked, for example, and the continuous string of maladies that afflicts Danny and George’s restaurant at the end of the film seem a little unnecessary. Still, it’s an impressive debut effort for Mr. Davi, especially in the visual sense.

For a director with little in the way of formal training and working on a shoestring budget, Mr. Davi’s film looks amazing. In a question and answer session after the film, Mr. Davi said that he picked up most of the tricks in his movie by osmosis; having worked with greats like Richard Donner (“The Goonies”), Paul Verhoeven (“Showgirls”) and John McTiernan (“Die Hard”), he’s had a lot to osmose. It’ll be fun to see what he can do with a bigger budget…