The line between the cute and the brainless is a fine one, and this sort-of prequel to the surprise 1987 crowd-pleaser stays pretty obstinately on the wrong side of it throughout its 86 minutes. Fans will recall that the initial “Dirty Dancing,” set in the 1960s, concerned a spoiled teen (Jennifer Grey) whose life was changed during a vacation in the Catskills, when she met dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). “Havana Nights” is set in the Cuban capital toward the close of the Batista regime, and ends with the success of the Castro revolution on New Year’s Day, 1959. The young lady in the spotlight this time around is Jeannie Miller (Sela Ward), a prim bookworm who arrives from America with her dad Bert (John Slattery), who’s been transferred there by his company, mom Katey (Romola Garai) and little sister Susie (Mika Boorem). As it happens, Bert and Katey were once champion dancers, but now they’re a corporate couple who want their daughter to fit in with the children of the firm’s other expatriate employees, especially James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson), the handsome, wealthy son of Bert’s boss. (Of course, there’s also a catty rival for Jeannie, who also has her eye on Phelps; here it’s a girl named Eve, played with the usual air of smug assurance by January Jones.) But the normally sedate, responsible Jeannie instead gets involved with Javier (Diego Luna), a busboy at the posh hotel where the enclave lives, who’s treated shabbily by the foreign interlopers. Wandering the streets one day, she finds him dancing in a square, and before you can say abracadabra they’ve become a team, preparing to wow the crowd at a local dance competition that will bring Javier the money he needs to support his family after being fired from the hotel job.
Of course, there are other complications, most notably the condescending attitude of the Americans, including Jeannie’s own family, toward the locals, and the involvement of Javier’s brother Carlos (Rene Lavan) in the resistance. But don’t you know it, these two crazy kids from different worlds manage to overcome all the obstacles and make it to the finals–which, unhappily, coincide with the fall of the pro-American government.
As penned by Victoria Arch and the once-promising Boaz Yakin (whose 1994 writing-directing debut “Fresh” remains remarkably true to its title, but whose last helming effort was the dreadful “Uptown Girls”), and directed without a sliver of imagination by Guy Ferland (his first feature since the interesting if flawed “Telling Lies in America” from 1997), “Havana Nights” is extremely silly from the start–no better than the sort of adolescent fluff that shows up regularly on family-oriented cable channels–but it goes completely bananas at the end, when our naive duo is rhapsodizing about prospects for happy days in Cuba following the revolution without even a hint of irony entering into the conversation. Luna is ingratiating as the local lad with the swivelling hips, an easy smile and laudable family loyalty, but Ward is strangely stiff as Jeannie, especially in the non-terpsichorean moments, and the supporting cast never registers anything beyond a stolid sort of adequacy, with Garai coming off especially uncomfortable as the mother who wants what she wrongly imagines is best for her daughter–a rich husband and the acceptance of snooty society. Technically the picture passes muster, and the music has some sporadic verve, but the choreography doesn’t have the flair needed to put the hokum across.
Incidentally, Swayze turns up again to put a kind of imprimatur to the project–Castle is the guy who encourages the initially hesitant Jeannie to take the plunge and go for the dancing gold. He can still move with impressive grace, but understandably looks to have a good many more years behind him than the (supposedly older) fellow of the original. Grey, meanwhile, turns up in a brief cameo toward the close, playing Fidel Castro. (Just kidding, folks.)
In most instances, long-delayed sequels would have been better off left unmade. “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” is definitely one of those times. The 1987 original was no prize, but it dances circles around this cinematic misstep.