Warner Bros. // 1992 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // September 5th, 2005
With a suitcase full of song, hearts filled with passion, two brothers come to America in search of a dream.
With a suitcase full of cast members, hearts mostly filled with passion, two actors come to America in search of a plot. They don't find it, but it's fun to watch them looking.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, The Mambo Kings follows brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) through their flight from Cuba into the American spotlight. With the mambo in their blood, Cesar and Nestor charm the pants off of Lanna Lake (Cathy Moriarty, Analyze That) and Delores (Maruschka Detmers Prénom Carmen). Cesar has dreams of fame, while Nestor just wants to drown in his memories of Cuba and his beloved Maria (Talisa Soto, Licence to Kill). Something has to give, and the opportunity to appear on I Love Lucy with Desi Arnaz (Desi Arnaz Jr.) will bring these tensions to the surface.
Two assertions about The Mambo Kings would pass relatively undisputed. First, the music is fantastic, at turns infectious and melancholy. Second, the frenetic energy of the plot peters out halfway through, and the film relies on commonplace melodrama in the closing scenes.
The remaining "facts" in this case are widely disputed. Armand Assante is French -- or maybe an Irish New Yorker. Maruschka Detmers is French -- or maybe Dutch. (In any case, neither is Cuban.) Opinions on the film itself generally fall into the "this movie touched my soul" camp or the "what a missed opportunity" camp.
It is easy to see why The Mambo Kings touches so many viewers. Through warm lighting, extravagant interiors, and grand dance numbers, it evokes the glitz and glamour of 1950s Warner musical productions. Music flows through the film, literally and figuratively. Celia Cruz lends authenticity and musical flair. Even Armand Assante gets into the groove, demonstrating considerable drumming prowess in a scintillating performance with Tito Puente. Talisa Soto, Maruschka Detmers, and Cathy Moriarty look fantastic. The men wear gaudy ties. The Mambo Kings feels anachronistic, a relic from the golden age of the silver screen that somehow slipped through to 1992.
Inside this glitz, the Castillo brothers experience or provoke every emotion known to man or woman. First-time director Arne Glimcher does a credible job of showing us these emotions, not just waving his hands at them. His love scenes are actually interesting to watch, particularly in contrast with each other. After watching the passionate Cesar take Lanna by storm, you have to feel for Delores and her decidedly less active paramour Nestor. Some of Glimcher's reaction shots have such an obvious, lengthy setup that it becomes painful to wait for the inevitable teardrop or smirk. But in general, The Mambo Kings successfully evokes a range of emotion that keeps us interested.
Glimcher is aided considerably by Armand Assante, who gives an outstanding performance. Assante tears through the film. Nestor lives with such abandon that he becomes filled with snowballing tension, a dam that must surely break or be assaulted by the other characters. He is simply too large, too buoyant to last. On the other hand we have Antonio Banderas. He couldn't speak a lick of English at this time. Glints of the future star spark forth, but the performance is uneven and sometimes awkward. Cathy Moriarty is both glamorous and gritty, moving like Garbo and talking like Bette Davis. Talisa Soto looks otherworldly, but isn't given much to do. Detmers seems pained, somehow.
The cinematography owes no small debt to Goodfellas. Certain shots are lifted directly, such as Cesar's entrance into the Palladium. By combining the Goodfellas vibe with the veiled threats and hostile stares that follow in Nestor's wake, The Mambo Kings sets up an atmosphere of dread that never amounts to anything. We subconsciously brace ourselves for violence that never manifests, which feels like a letdown.
Indeed, narrative clarity is a general problem with The Mambo Kings. Cesar and Delores are set up as star-crossed lovers, but that subplot is hardly referenced again (except through inference). Nestor's character wavers between victim and antagonist. Lanna is a major character -- or is she? It is hard to figure out what Glimcher is trying to say with The Mambo Kings. His commentary is filled with assertions that contradict conclusions I drew from watching the film, so either I missed a lot or falsely assumed a lot, or the film isn't explicit enough. By the closing scenes, this uncertainty sinks the narrative drive. The characters begin to grate, or at least chafe a bit.
The DVD is ably handled, albeit with flaws. The video transfer is detailed, with vibrant color and a veneer of smooth warmth. Yet the key is overly dark, and the image has been slightly cropped from its original aspect ratio. Latter scenes become grainy and take on colder hues. This may be an intentional color shift as the characters deteriorate, but it stands out.
The 5.1 mix is entirely unnecessary, because The Mambo Kings dwells almost entirely in the front soundstage. Music is dynamic and broad, but dialogue is confusingly subdued. In at least three places I had to rewind and engage subtitles. Part of this is Cynthia Cidre's unexpected dialogue, which is a strong point, but it is irritating not to understand what is being said.
Though the behind-the-scenes featurette is pure (but thankfully brief) fluff, Glimcher's commentary is earnest and informative. He tends to watch the film with us, which leads to several long lapses in the commentary, but when he's speaking it is interesting.
The Mambo Kings has real problems with pacing and clarity, and the character arcs aren't well defined. Nonetheless, the performances are compelling, especially Assante's and Moriarty's. When you throw in great music, glamorous sets, and a strong emotional current, The Mambo Kings has strong potential to charm you. It is the kind of movie you'll want to watch often if you enjoy it. It feels like a standard Warner number sometimes, but there are far worse things to be.
Does this court have jurisdiction over Mambo Kings?
Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director Arne Glimcher
* Behind-The-Scenes Featurette
* Theatrical Trailer