MOVIE REVIEW : Tapping Into Power of 'Mambo'

TIMES FILM CRITIC

If they gave out Oscars for Best First 15 Minutes, "The Mambo Kings" would definitely be a contender. Driven by an incendiary Latin beat, and filled with smoldering looks and irresistible music, it roars out of the starting gate and flattens everything in sight. Such a torrent of energy pours out of the screen, in fact, that it takes a while to notice the film's not inconsiderable flaws, and by that time it seems churlish to raise a fuss.

For, like a Cuban-American version of "The Commitments," "Mambo Kings" shows how much we are willing to forgive if only a movie fills the screen with gaudy life. Cliched characters, cartoonish emotions, an uncertain plot, none of this seems to matter much in the face of a motion picture that is able to hook into as potent a musical force as the sexy, sensual mambo music of the 1950s.

First-time director Arne Glimcher, a major New York art dealer and sometime producer ("Gorillas in the Mist," "Housekeeping"), has reportedly been enthralled by the mambo since the 1950s and he has shrewdly saturated his film with wall-to-wall music, nearly 20 Latin tunes whose insistent beat, especially when performed on-screen by past masters like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, is as addictive as island rum.

And "Mambo Kings" (selected theaters, rated R for sensuality) has something more going for it as well. In Armand Assante, who stars as Cesar Castillo, one of a pair of rumba-loving brothers, it boasts a mesmerizing actor working near the top of his form.

Though Pedro Almodovar stalwart Antonio Banderas, the man Madonna pined for in "Truth or Dare," does a quietly effective job as Cesar's poetic brother Nestor, it is Assante, as the explosive, self-assured Cesar, who galvanizes this film. As in Sidney Lumet's "Q & A," Assante is vivid even in repose, a recklessly dynamic actor capable of making questionable lines like "You know you are a knockout, baby" sound better than they have any right to.

And "The Mambo Kings" turns out to need every last ounce of Assante's passion. Though Cynthia Cidre's script is nominally based on Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," the relationship is a glancing one at best, and one can see why.

For though Hijuelos' book is beautifully written and drenched in atmosphere, it largely lacks the kind of story line Hollywood insists on. So the problem with the movie is not that the script has added plot elements, but rather that, once the adrenalizing power of Assante and the music begin to wear off, what has been added seems awkward, ineffectual and unresolved.

Certainly, as noted, "Mambo Kings" begins like gangbusters. After a smashing opening dance number in a Havana nightclub, Cesar bursts into the dressing room of a showgirl named Maria and screams at her, "You're not good enough for my brother. You broke his heart for this scum."

Said scum, a lowlife named Luis, promptly attempts to cut Cesar's throat, and before you can whistle "Guantanamera" he and brother Nestor have left the country and are partying in the aisles on a bus to New York. Here, the Castillos (Cesar is a singer as well as a born operator; Nestor a trumpet-playing songwriter) hope to make it big in the music business.

No sooner do they get to New York then, boom, they head for the Palladium, the biggest of the Latin nightspots, so imposing that Nestor crosses himself when they walk in the door. The scene at the Palladium, with Cesar joining Tito Puente on stage, hustling comely cigarette girl Lanna Lake (Cathy Moriarty) off stage, and in general throwing off a phenomenal amount of personal magnetism, is "Mambo King's" high spot. Once the music stops that night, the film, like an inflated doll with a slow leak, begins gradually to lose its energy.

Though "Mambo Kings" strikes out in any number of plot directions--a new romance for Nestor, a guest appearance as Desi Arnaz's compadres on "I Love Lucy," battles over the direction the boys will take their music, even the usual brother versus brother blood rivalry--none of it sticks. Partly this is due to deficiencies in the script, saddled as it is with lines like "You have much to learn, Mambo King," and partly to Glimcher's inexperience as a director.

While having Oscar-winning editor Claire Simpson ("Platoon") and top-of-the-line cinematographer Michael Ballhaus ("Good Fellas," "The Fabulous Baker Boys") on his team helped Glimcher get through the showier aspects of "Mambo Kings," when it comes to directing dramatic sequences, he is on his own and lacking in resources to make what drama there is come to a coherent or meaningful point.

Still, it is hard to get very upset at "Mambo Kings." Like Cesar himself, described by a rueful woman as having the self-confidence of "the last Coca-Cola in the desert," this film dares you to resist it, dares you to deny that its powerful music makes the unacceptable acceptable. Sure, the fun doesn't last forever, but in these dry days, even a little fun goes further than you might expect.

'The Mambo Kings'

Armand Assante: Cesar Castillo

Antonio Banderas: Nestor Castillo

Cathy Moriarty: Lanna Lake

Maruschka Detmers: Delores Fuentes

Desi Arnaz Jr.: Desi Arnaz Sr.

Celia Cruz: Evalina Montoya

Roscoe Lee Browne: Fernando Perez

Produced in association with Le Studio Canal +, Regency Enterprises, Alcor Films, released by Warner Bros Pictures. Director Arne Glimcher. Producers Glimcher and Arnon Milchan. Executive producer Steven Reuther. Screenplay Cynthia Cidre, based on the novel "Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" by Oscar Hijuelos. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Claire Simpson. Costumes Ann Roth, Gary Jones, Bridget Kelly. Executive Music Producer Robert Kraft. Production design Stuart Wetzel. Art director Steve Saklad. Set decorators Kara Lindstrom. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (sensuality).

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