How do you write a review for a movie that unashamedly craps on the memory of its deservedly famed and beloved predecessor? The answer: with venom. Call it corny, but 1987's "Dirty Dancing" was also a hip, endlessly entertaining musical romance with rhythm that got you to care about its two star-crossed lovers and their plight. In the name of all things that is money, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" is a prequel-cum-loose-remake that is nothing more than a cheap, contemptible ploy to cash in on a well-known title. The abandon with which director Guy Ferland takes in destroying all that was so charming and exuberant about the original is equal parts disgraceful and mind-blowing. The man may not have talent (he doesn't prove otherwise here), but he sure has balls.
Primarily set during the months leading up to the Cuban Revolution on New Year's Eve 1958, Katey Vendetto (Romola Garai) is an American high school senior who has been abruptly transplanted to Cuba with her family while her dad takes a job. Romantic fate smiles Katey's way when she meets Javier Sanchez (Diego Luna), a busboy at her hotel who attracts her with his hot Latin dance moves. Katey is not the best dancer, but with the urging of dance instructor Johnny Castle (sole repriser Patrick Swayze) and the help of Javier, she and Javier enter a dance contest. For Katey's uptight mother, Jeannie (Sela Ward), her romantic mingling with the lower-class is unacceptable.
Written by Victoria Arch and Boaz Yakin, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" is alarmingly horrid, far worse that one could even imagine a retelling of the story to be. Whereas "Dirty Dancing" had the formidable talents and force of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze to work with, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" has been heinously miscast with the British Romola Garai and the slightly built, wimpy Diego Luna (2003's "Open Range
") filling in. Garai may have appeal in a better film, but with Katey she is stuck with a dull character that has no depth and shows no growth outside of the plainly superficial. Luna, meanwhile, embarrasses himself. It's not that he is necessarily bad, but he simply does not have to stature and seductive leading man qualities required for the role. The chemistry between Garai and Luna is transparent; their romance has the heat and passion one would imagine a killer whale and a small dog to likely have.
In place of the fun, eclectic period music mixed with current pop tunes that drifted throughout "Dirty Dancing," "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" offers up anemic, instantly forgettable salsa music intercut with out-of-place rap. The choreography also lacks energy. And in the place of Baby's sharply written family members, led by respectable character actor Jerry Orbach, we are given stereotypes this time around: a shrewish mother who, of course, was once an excellent dancer and needs only the inspiration of Katey to recapture her passion; a loyal father (John Slattery) who stands by to calm down his wife; and a younger sister, Susie (a wasted Mika Boorem), who looks up to her older sibling because the script pages tell her to. Other supporting characters include wealthy American classmate James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson, wasted too), who Katey starts to like until he conveniently tries to force himself on her, and the snooty Eve (January Jones, wasted), whom the picture takes great pains to set up before she completely and inexplicably disappears after the first thirty minutes.
The climax, set at the dance contest on New Year's Eve, is godawful in its conception and execution. As Katey and Javier take to the stage in a moment of courage and triumph as Katey's family looks on, they are cut short by the start of the Cuban Revolution. If ever there was a bad idea to have in what is essentially a fluffy musical, this is it. The film's half-hearted, watered-down attempt to add political intrigue and resonance to a motion picture that didn't need it is bewildering and borderline-offensive. Not only that, but it digs itself even further into a hole when it should be gaining momentum for an electric, inspiring, music-laden finale. Whereas "Dirty Dancing" concluded with toe-tapping finesse and left you light on your feet, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" barely escapes with even a whimper.
In an extended cameo, Patrick Swayze shows up to dance with Katey and give her advice. The second he appeared on screen, the audience jumped awake long enough to roar with applause and cheers at a charismatic man who could act circles around these low-rent knockoffs any day of the week. It also brings me to wonder: If Swayze's appearance and the feeling of familiarity were all that viewers wished forand a continuation just had to be madethen why couldn't they have simply reunited he and Jennifer Grey for a sequel? Not only might it have recaptured the magic of their onscreen chemistry, but it also could have resurrected some acting careers. It certainly would have been better than "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," a hatefully shallow, condescending waste of celluloid that will be long forgotten by next week while the original "Dirty Dancing" continues to thrive for decades to come.