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‘The Mambo Kings’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1992

"The Mambo Kings" is so pumped up with life it threatens to burst. It's beautifully filmed and flashily edited. It pulsates with rhythmic ecstasy. It throbs, it sweats, it pounds, it undulates.

So much for the opening credits.

There's still a whole movie to go. "Mambo Kings," starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, does keep its mood and momentum for a while. Initially, there is lively syncopation between Assante and Banderas. A brother team of musicians just out of Cuba in the early 1950s, they have come to take New York by storm. It isn't long before the Mambo Kings band is hitting the local clubs.

Older brother Assante sings and does the booking. Banderas plays soulful trumpet and writes songs -- such as "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" -- to the girl he left behind. Assante wants to make it big in America, both hands clutching the breasts of obliging blonde Cathy Moriarty. Banderas wants beautiful Maria but he marries Maruschka Detmers instead. He's a tough man to please.

Little by little, however, the movie's heart gives out. It's impossible to sustain a feature-length climax of dancing, singing and wooing in smoky clubs. Things finally change to a minor key -- when sorrow, anger and disappointment take over. But those developments are trite, soap-opera affairs.

The brothers weather the dilemmas -- whether to accept the help of cliched, sleazy promoter Roscoe Lee Browne or suffer a lifetime of bar mitzvahs. They enjoy the good times -- a guest appearance on "I Love Lucy" (Desi Arnaz Jr. playing his late dad with uncanny resemblance). They undergo tragedies and estrangements.

When the movie returns to its original strain, the primal excitement feels redundant. In fact, the garish, neon-suffused mood becomes almost obnoxious. Now everything is an overextended mambo video, full of writhing, stylized beings with superficially drawn personal lives. Behind its sweaty, life-affirming bluster, "Mambo Kings" has nothing to offer.

Despite their appeal, the two principals remain annoyingly static. Banderas, the handsome regular in the films of Pedro Almodovar, remains obsessed with Cuban true love Talisa Soto. His self-pitying pain soon wears out its romantic welcome. Shut up with beautiful Maria of your soul already. As for Assante, he's the life of the party -- but stays that way long after the hosts have gone to bed.

"I love this country!" he says, in a strategic, unmentionable position with girlfriend Moriarty. Then he roars his signature cackle. He taps drumsticks and butts with Tito Puente. He shakes his sensual Cuban booty throughout the film. When things get rough later on, he starts drinking. It's a tragic time for him and for the Mambo Kings. On the other hand, anything that stops that incessant laughter can't be all bad.

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