BRIAN DE PALMA makes a movie without power tools. "Wise Guys," a surprisingly sweet, but sluggish Mafia farce, teams easy-going Joe Piscopo with driven, dangerous Danny De Vito in a neo-Abbott and Costello Meet the Godfather.
They play a pair of good-natured flunkies, guys who start the boss' car, place his bets and test his bulletproof suits. Piscopo is incongruously cast as a Jewish hood named Moe Dickstein -- "The Jackie Robinson of crime in New Jersey," he says. De Vito, as his bumbling best friend and next-door neighbor Harry Valentini, is a compulsive gambler who persuades Moe to bet the boss' money on a losing horse.
Lampooning Brando's Godfather, Dan Hedaya, as the boss, decides the flunkies' lives aren't worth living anymore. But "do we really hurt them by killing them?" he asks, thereupon deciding on a more devious plan to test their loyalty. The wise guys' lifelong friendship hangs in the balance when each is hired to ice the other.
Mobsters don't seem to carry violin cases anymore, but if they did, Piscopo would play second fiddle to De Vito, whose vitality and manic energy overpower his low-key costar. Piscopo, whining and quivering, plays the slower-thinking Dickstein with a little too much wide-eyed gullibility.
Hedaya is maliciously funny in his brief role, but Captain Lou Albano, as his huge henchman, hogs the villain's share of the screen. The "Wrestlemania" superstar approaches acting on the screen like acting in the ring. He screams and spits and throws his weight around. Apparently De Palma didn't have the sense, the nerve or the strength to cut the 300-pounder's part.
De Palma, badly in need of a change of pace after "Scarface" and "Body Double," directs his first farce since "Home Movies" in 1979. By and large it's a wooden effort, based on a slight script by George Gallo, which, incidentally, has nothing whatsoever to do with the current bestseller "Wise Guy."
When "Wise Guys" succeeds -- and it has its moments -- it's thanks to De Vito's drive, his dynamic comedy, and sometimes to Piscopo's sappy sincerity. What it lacks is sure slapstick to give it the edge, the anger, the danger. Maybe De Palma should go back to his tool chest and look for a hammer or something to crack a joke.
WISE GUYS (PG-13) -- At area theaters.