It's No Contest in Havana

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2004

Nobody puts Baby in a corner. And nobody does justice to "Dirty Dancing," the 1987 dance musical/coming-of-age drama that became one of the most beloved and iconic movies of the 1980s.

It's a tribute to the originality of "Dirty Dancing," and to the screen magic of its stars, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze as "Baby" Houseman and Johnny Castle, that it's taken Hollywood the better part of 20 years to come up with a sequel. "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" doesn't begin to live up to the giddy energy, romance and terrific dancing of its progenitor. Indeed, the best thing about it is an incandescent but all-too-brief appearance by Swayze himself.

Still Jack LaLanne trim, with his signature ramrod-straight torso and poetic hips, Swayze is the brightest light in an otherwise forgettable if unobjectionable movie. He plays the dance instructor in a tony Havana hotel, where he coaches one of its guests, the teenage Katey Miller (Romola Garai), for a dance contest. After twirling her around the floor in a twisty, exhilarating series of turns, the Swayze character dashes out of the room, leaving viewers longing for Katey to yell, "Hey, what's your name?" and for him to turn and say, "Johnny Castle, ma'am."

Alas, it's not to be. And Swayze is reduced to a cameo player in a film meant to highlight the lovely Garai, last seen (or, perhaps more accurately, not seen) in last year's "I Capture the Castle," and Diego Luna, best known to American audiences for his appearance in "Y Tu Mama Tambien." They are both attractive, eminently likable young performers, even if they don't light up the screen the way Grey and Swayze did back in the day. More to the point, neither is a trained dancer.

Still, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" has its modest charms. Filmed in Puerto Rico, the movie captures the bold, decadent, retro flair of Batista-era Cuba, with its big-finned cars, wasp-waisted skirts and unapologetic American capitalists.

Katey's father has just arrived in Havana to be an executive with the Ford Motor Co.; it's November 1958, on the eve of the communist revolution, and throughout "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" the class unrest roiling the streets outside the Millers' hotel is echoed in Katey's own father's uneasy relations with his boss.

The analogy is strained, but at least Garai and Luna make it possible, if not easy, to believe that the upper-class Katey would befriend a poor busboy (Luna). This hard-working young man, whose name is Xavier, takes Katey out of her cosseted, white-bread world into the sweating, hip-popping, undulating demimonde of Havana's nightclubs. There, she learns the sinuous, sensual moves that are worlds apart from the country club foxtrot she's perfected with her peers.

Katey, whose own parents were ballroom champs, subscribes to the Fred-and-Ginger school, whereas Xavier's moves veer more toward the Justin-and-Janet side of things. That anachronistic reference isn't out of place in a movie full of contemporary flourishes, especially in the music. Somehow it's hard to believe singers were crying, "Represent, represent!" in 1958.

While pursuing a tentative romance, Katey and Xavier enter a few dance contests, scandalizing her parents and the callous expatriate sophisticates who drape themselves around the hotel pool. Guy Ferland, who directed "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," does a pretty good job of evoking 1950s Cuba, at least for the teenagers who will be most drawn to the film. With its heady mix of revolutionary politics and sexual awakening, it might be described as "The Dreamers" on training wheels.

Things finally come to a head on New Year's Eve, when Katey and Xavier compete for the biggest prize of all -- a ticket to America -- in a swank dinner-jacket-and-pearls nightclub. ("Godfather Part II" fans could make a parlor game of looking for Michael and Fredo Corleone in the background.) The dancing is good, the romance is doomed, the streets are on fire, and somewhere out there, Swayze is waiting to have the time of his life. We're waiting, too.

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (86 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sensuality.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company