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February 2004

By Julian Roman
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Directed by: Guy Ferland
Produced by: Lawrence Bender, Sarah Green
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin and Victoria Arch
Cinematography: Tony Richmond
Cast: Ramola Garai, Diego Luna, Jonathan Jackson, Sela Ward, Mya , John Slattery, Mika Boorem

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is quite similar to the original film. The setting and time has changed, but the formula doesn't have that feel-good effect the second time around. The dance scenes are enjoyable and any fan of Latin music will like the soundtrack. The filmmakers choose to add 21st century house beats to some of the songs. That's out of place for a movie set in the 50's, but perfect for the ears of the targeted teenage demographic. The film paces well and was fairly entertaining to its midpoint. The problem is the complete letdown of story and dramatic depth in the conclusion. They choose to play it safe and it deflates the charm of the film. The audience builds up a vested interest in the lead characters and are not rewarded for their time. The best thing about the film is the performance of Diego Luna. Some will remember him from Y Tu Mama Tambien, but this film will be his debut to the Pop-American audience. He does good work in a sub-par script; holding the film together when a lesser actor would not.

Romola Garai makes her big screen debut as Katey Vendetto. She's a brainy, but classically beautiful blonde transplanted to Cuba in 1958. Her father works for Ford and moves the entire family to a life of white-Cuban aristocracy. Diego Luna plays Xavier Suarez, a bus boy at the upscale hotel where her family lives. They meet by accident when he spills his drinks on her by the pool. Her racist schoolmates treat him poorly and their language shocks her. Her attempts to apologize fail and Diego brands her as another arrogant white girl. Fate, of course, has them meeting again. Katey is forced to walk home from school and sees Diego dancing in a town square. She loves dancing and spends a lot of time watching her parent's dance on film. They were champion ballroom dancers and she is enamored with their grace. She convinces Diego to be her dance partner in a local contest after he gets fired for being around her. The prize money would help his family; who have been cruelly subjugated under Batista's regime.

The looming revolution in Cuba plays a big part in the film. It's hovering around them as their love for each other grows. This is where the film goes downhill. The love story and dancing work well until the drama surrounding the revolution takes over. It seems manufactured and very unrealistic. I have problems with the way her parent's (Sela Ward and John Slattery) react to their romance and the social events. It's impractical and could have been used more effectively for dramatic content. They really have a lot to work with, the revolution, the secret romance, the difference in race, and the looming dance competition. The story just fizzles in the end when it could have been much better.

The pairing of Romola Garai and Diego Luna works for most of the film. Romola is quite attractive and pulls off the sweet, innocent girl routine, but her performance falters greatly when she needs to be dramatic. Her final scenes with Diego are comical because he's nailing it and she's obviously not. There were actually cries of laughter from the audience during these important moments of drama. The director, Guy Ferland, should have coaxed a better performance from her during those scenes. She was doing so well with the character; it's a pity to see her struggle at the payoff.

Fans of the first film will enjoy the cameo by Patrick Swayze. He makes an appearance as the dance instructor at the hotel where the Vendetto's live. Swayze deserves some credit. It's been twenty years since the first film and he's still dancing his arse off. Audiences have a fondness for the first film and will like his part here. It's unnecessary, but adds a familiar character that the audience wants to see.

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is supposedly based on true events. I didn't investigate how true that statement is, so I won't speculate on how the story was sexed up. This film succeeds as a slightly heartwarming and entertaining date movie. Fans of the music and dancing will probably enjoy it more; the filmmakers do a good job there and deserve credit. It would have been a disaster if the dancing was terrible and thankfully it's not. Diego Luna's introduction to the American mainstream is what this film will be remembered for. He's a fine actor and might one day receive the recognition of his famous friend, Gael Garcia Bernal. It will be a great day in Hollywood when Latino actors of their caliber have stars on the walk and get $20 million paydays.