If you can envision “Let’s Be Cops” reconstituted as a noirish psychodrama, you may be adequately prepared for “Duke,” an uneven but arresting indie thriller about two siblings who are driven to heroic extremes by childhood traumas. Co-directed by twin brothers James and Anthony Gaudioso, who also appear in strikingly different supporting roles, the film sustains more than enough dramatic tension from scene to scene to keep a viewer intrigued, despite the sporadic fuzziness of motivation and plot specifics, though it faces long odds as it tries to distinguish itself among scads of similar small-budget efforts currently available on streaming platforms.
After a portentous prologue that hints at psychologically scarring childhood experiences at an institution referenced only as “The Home” — maybe an orphanage, maybe a reformatory — the narrative proper kicks in as Dare (Carmine Giovinazzo), a tightly wired undercover detective, and Roost (Michael Monks), a uniformed officer, are patrolling a West L.A. neighborhood in an unmarked car. But here’s the thing: Neither is really a cop. They’ve tricked themselves out with badges and other items to pose as protectors of the populace. And while Roost is too unstable to be consistently comfortable in his role, Dare projects all the Dirty Harry-style edginess necessary to fool even a real LAPD officer they pull over for a traffic stop.
As the story progresses, Roost grudgingly hangs up his uniform and redirects his attention to his favorite pastime, watching old John Wayne movies on TV — mostly, but not exclusively, Westerns. (At one point, he varies his routine by viewing a scratchy 16mm print of “The High and the Mighty.”) But Dare continues to prowl the mean streets, managing to be tough enough to roust (and rob) petty criminals and other lowlifes while convincing more than a few folks who should know better — including a retired cop (Richard Roundtree), two transgender hookers (James Gaudioso, Vanessa Ferlito), and a stripper (Lesley-Ann Brandt) with a heart of gold — that he’s really and truly a supercop.
The filmmakers push too hard by providing faux film-noiresque narration to underscore most scenes involving Dare’s pursuit of a notorious career criminal (Maurice Benard) who’s already killed at least two real cops. On the other hand, they cleverly ratchet up the suspense by suggesting an ambitious young LAPD detective (Anthony Gaudioso, who’s also credited with the screenplay) might be every bit as recklessly obsessed as Dare as he hunts for the same quarry. Both the real cop and the pretender are subjected to the same sort of brutal beatings often endured by the antiheroes in Spaghetti Westerns, one of several indications throughout “Duke” that the movie is as much a homage to classic and revisionist sagebrush sagas as it is a skeptical reappraisal of the film noir tough guy archetype.
Giovinazzo veers perilously close to caricature now and then as he conveys the intensity of Dare’s self-delusions, but he always manages to pull back just in time for the pretend cop to remain compelling. He comes off well opposite Monks as the fragile yet arguably more dangerous Roost — but even better in surprisingly affecting scenes with Ferlito and James Gaudioso as sympathetically drawn characters who constantly appear in danger of becoming collateral damage.
Production values — especially Jayson Crothers’ evocative lensing — are first-rate across the board. Indeed, Crothers deserves a special shout-out simply for taking a fresh approach to one of the more tiresome of visual clichés — i.e., a nightmare sequence — and making it genuinely, well, nightmarish. Meanwhile, Michael Irby helps the filmmakers breathe fresh life into another type of cliché: a low-level Hispanic mechanic/gangster with a crew of brutish thugs. It turns out the guy is much smarter, and more deserving of dodging a bullet, than he initially seems.