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The Mambo Kings

No matter what you think about The Mambo Kings (1992) as a whole, if your toes aren't tapping by the time the final credits roll, you might very well be dead. Director Arne Glimcher's adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) is chock full of fiery, rhythmic mambos, sambas, boleros, and cha-cha-chas, in many cases performed by Latin music legends like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. The music infuses the story of two Cuban brothers — Cesar (Armand Assante) and Nestor (Antonio Banderas, making his U.S. debut) Castillo — who come to America dreaming of playing Manhattan's famous nightclubs with energy and passion. Unfortunately, the film's story doesn't quite live up to the music's promise. Too many of the details and subtleties of Hijuelos' novel are left out of the screen version to avoid a sense of choppy hurriedness — one minute the Castillo brothers are fresh-off-the-bus immigrants, and the next they're headlining at the Empire Room. Similarly, despite Banderas' heartfelt performance as tortured artist Nestor, who pines for the true love he left behind in Havana, his descent into melancholia seems inexplicably abrupt. Assante's Cesar is much more consistent; the Italian-Irish actor does strong work as the fun-loving, womanizing Cuban showman whose attempts to help his younger brother are meant well but often end up driving Nestor further away. In the supporting cast, Cathy Moriarty is a brassy, earthy pleasure as Cesar's girlfriend Lanna, and Cruz (in a rare film appearance) is practically oracular as mambo diva Evalina Montoya. Maruschka Detmers relies a little too heavily on doe-eyed sadness as Nestor's love interest, Delores, but some of her early, wordless scenes with Assante have a striking intensity. And Desi Arnaz, Jr., appears to have a ball playing his famous father, who gives the Castillo brothers their biggest break. Ultimately, between the acting and the soundtrack, The Mambo Kings is engaging enough, but it never quite lives up to the passionate promise of the music that gives it its name. Warner's DVD release was likely timed to coincide with the August 2005 debut of The Mambo Kings musical on Broadway… a debut that never happened, since the show was scrapped after a critically panned preview run in San Francisco. The disc features a generally strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English, French and Spanish tracks are available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles). An emotional scene between Lanna and Cesar that was cut for the theatrical run has been reinstated; other features include a commentary by Glimcher, a brief behind-the-scenes featurette, and the trailer. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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