The mere existence of a sequel to Dirty Dancing, the 1987 sleeper hit that eased legions of Gen-X girls into womanhood, seems like a curious anomaly, as if it were the first film green-lit by an executive who had been cryogenically frozen for 15 years. Patrick Swayze makes the tenuous connection complete with a guest appearance as a dance instructor in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, but that only deepens the confusion: Is this supposed to be the same guy from the original? If so, the timeline places him back a full five years earlier, which means the ageless Swayze is playing a character a full two decades younger than he is. Yet in spite of all these conceptual blunders, Havana Nights recasts the same basic premise against the potentially invigorating backdrop of 1958 Cuba, where passions are inflamed by considerably more than just music. The genre rules haven't changed—uptight country-club princess, dirt-poor local, a dance contest, and so on—but here the 18-year-old ingénue has a chance to experience a cultural, political, and sexual awakening simultaneously, which makes for an impressive coming-of-age hat trick. In fact, the early scenes promise something like a kid-friendly Garden Of The Finzi-Continis, following a wealthy American family that holes up in resort quarters while the real Cuba seethes from the revolutionary uprising. When Romola Garai, the shy and brainy blonde heroine, takes an interest in cabana boy Diego Luna, she wanders outside the resort gates and sees another side of Havana, where people are poor, oppressed, and slaves to the dance. Left aflutter by the freeform grinding at a local nightclub, Garai convinces Luna to be her partner in a Latin ballroom-dancing competition, much to the alarm of her blueblood parents, who were once celebrated dancers themselves, albeit not dirty ones. When they first start practicing, Luna complains that pairing with Garai is "like dancing with my mother's ironing board," an analogy that describes Garai the actress even better. Coming off his sly performance in Y Tu Mamá También, Luna has energy and charisma to burn, but he's only matched by Garai in the dance sequences, when her lithe, elegant frame speaks a different tongue than the halting lines coming out of her mouth. Though timed to Batista's overthrow, Havana Nights brushes politics off its plate like a garnish (it's anti-Batista, anti-Castro, and pro-freedom), but it doesn't compensate with much in the way of electrifying dance sequences. Choppy and overloaded with montage sequences, the film was clearly victimized in post-production, when whatever shred of a good idea that remained from its conception probably lies on the cutting-room floor. Havana Nights contains all the elements of a satisfying teen genre picture, but they've been compromised out of existence.
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