`Mambo Kings' Turns On Heat but Lacks Substance

`THE Mambo Kings" begins flamboyantly, cutting between a frenetic Latin dance number and a melodramatic encounter - three men, one woman, a knife - steeped in love, jealousy, and violence.

The episode is so florid and overheated that you expect it to be revealed as a film-within-the-film, or some other kind of staged incident. Surely we're not expected to take this heavy-breathing theatricality with a straight face!

Well, we are and we aren't. The opening scene is for real, it turns out - not a trick or a gimmick, but a harbinger of the fiery stylistics and explosive emotions that keep erupting throughout the movie.

All this is meant to be accepted seriously, but not too seriously. Like the Latin-bred music that gives the picture its momentum, the film is a feast for the senses, if not for the mind. It'll keep your toes tapping and your eyes jumping. Don't try to think about it, though, or find hidden depths in its corny plot. There aren't any.

The heroes of "The Mambo Kings" are two Cuban brothers named Cesar and Nestor, who leave Havana in 1952 and head for New York, determined to set the music scene on fire with their throbbing Latin rhythms. They take day jobs in a meat-packing plant. But their hearts only come alive after the sun goes down, when they maneuver for fame and fortune in the nightclub world - a world that has largely faded, and appears quite exotic from a 1990s perspective, but was a thriving part of urban Americana back in the


Not surprisingly, the brothers meet many fascinating people on their way to success, including women who win their hearts: a "cigarette girl" who captures Cesar's fancy and an aspiring schoolteacher who takes Nestor's mind off the love he left back home.

But the brothers put most of their emotional energy into their music and into their complicated relationship with each other - which gives the story its main focus, as artistic differences and personality clashes inject dissonant notes into their once-harmonious partnership.

The performances in "The Mambo Kings" are always adequate, if rarely exciting. Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas play Cesar and Nestor with style and conviction. Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers make the most of their secondary roles as love objects, and two Latin-music legends in real life - Tito Puente and Celia Cruz - are perfect as two Latin-music legends in the movie.

Also on hand is Desi Arnaz Jr., portraying Desi Arnaz Sr., in the film's most original and enjoyable sequence - an appearance by the Mambo Kings on the "I Love Lucy" television show, ingeniously edited so that Cesar and Nestor appear to be playing a hilarious scene with the inimitable Lucille Ball herself.

"The Mambo Kings" was directed by Arne Glimcher, a New York art-gallery owner who has dabbled in movie producing but never directed a film until now. The picture was awaited skeptically - and has been received ungraciously - by snobs in the movie world, who sniff that filmmaking calls for artistic skills beyond the ken of a mere businessperson.

I DISAGREE on two counts. First, the trouble with much of today's Hollywood filmmaking stems from the fact that many "real" directors have more film-school experience than real-world experience. A touch of cross-fertilization from other fields - such as putting an art dealer in the director's chair - could revive some of the diversity that Hollywood used to have, in the days when cinema was young and directors came from all walks of life except film school.

Second, it's obvious that Mr. Glimcher has received plenty of help from first-rate studio professionals. The cinematographer is Michael Ballhaus; the film editor is Claire Simpson; the music was produced by Robert Kraft. To applaud them is not to belittle Glimcher's accomplishment but to compliment him for surrounding himself with top-of-the-line collaborators.

With these things going for it, "The Mambo Kings" might have been an important film if it had something substantial to say about its subjects, which include the complexities of sibling rivalry and the important place of cultural traditions in the lives of immigrants. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Cuban-born scenarist Cynthia Cidre - based on "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Oscar Hijuelos - is content to skim along the surface of its material.

Still, the movie makes a rousing debut for filmmaker Glimcher and packs more rollicking music per inch than anything else around. Not to mention a visit from "I Love Lucy," which alone is almost worth the price of admission. Rated R; contains sex and rough language.

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