Yet another synthetic, old-fashioned movie (with modern R-rated sensibilities), "The Mambo Kings" is fairly conventional in story and structure - but oh, that music. The audience will be ready to dance in the aisles.
In fact, there's almost enough hip-swaying, toe-tapping rhythm here to forgive anything. So, when the film goes down its by-the-numbers predictable path, we don't mind, knowing that another musical number is bound to show up shortly.The cast is also ingratiating - in particular Armand Assante. He is Cesar, the older of two musician brothers in Cuba, and he has always looked out for his younger brother Nestor (Antonio Banderas). As the film opens, Cesar gives Nestor's girlfriend Maria a dressing-down for breaking Nestor's heart. He soon discovers Maria has married the owner of the nightclub where they work.
As a result, Cesar gets his throat cut and is left for dead in the alley. There, Maria explains that she married the boss to save Nestor's life - and suggests the brothers get out of the country.
So, Cesar takes Nestor to America, dreaming of hitting the big time in New York. They soon have a band, "The Mambo Kings," and play lively Latin music highlighted by original songs penned by Nestor.
Womanizing Cesar quickly takes up with cigarette girl Lanna Lake (Cathy Moriarty), but Nestor continues to nurse his wounds and pine for Maria. Eventually, he meets aspiring schoolteacher Delores Fuentes (Maruschka Detmers), a sweet girl who he hopes will get his mind off Maria.
They marry, have a child . . . and Nestor still pines for Maria. In fact, his biggest hit song is about Maria - which means Delores, to her chagrin, must listen to it repeatedly. And, if all this isn't enough, Delores and Cesar seem to be attracted to each other.
Meanwhile, the boys find their career dying on the vine because Cesar won't sign with a ruthless promoter (played with ooze by veteran Roscoe Lee Brown). But they get their moment in the sun when Desi Arnaz (played by Desi Arnaz Jr.) spots them and gives them a shot on the "I Love Lucy" show (a clever moment with Assante and Banderas integrated into an actual episode with Lucille Ball).
But all of these contrived plot machinations, many of which are introduced to little effect, are not what this movie is really about. It's about music.
Early in the film, when the brothers are fresh off the boat, Cesar jumps onto a New York stage and gets into a drum-playing competition with Tito Puente (playing himself), and the film's adrenalin reaches a fever pitch. A bit later, Cesar does a sensual dance with Delores, and again the film's tension builds audience excitement. In stage sets as the band plays its music, the film again climbs new emotional heights.
And it is those moments, showcasing the film's music, that make "The Mambo Kings" worth seeing - with an extra boost by Assante's energy level as Cesar.
The rest of the time there is little emotional resonance here. Most of the characters are cardboard "types," the story sputters along - and in the end, when tragedy occurs, the audience will likely just want to get on to the next song.
"The Mambo Kings" is rated R for some sex and nudity, and there is some violence, profanity and a couple of vulgar remarks.