It's The Juice That Counts

The hotblooded The Mambo Kings opens backstage at a nightclub in Batista's Cuba with curses, threats and a throat-slashing. You might think, for a moment, that this fever-pitch melodramatic prelude is parody-a movie within a movie, or a dream sequence that will soon give way to reality. Then it quickly becomes clear that this is the reality of "The Mambo Kings": heightened passions and melodramatic emotions propelled by the beat of the mambo, the rumba, the cha-cha-cha. First-time director Arne Glimcher has boldly taken Oscar Hijuelos's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love"-a rumination on the brief rise and long fall of two immigrant Cuban musicians-and pared and transformed it into a fleet and sensual musical melodrama. Exuberant, melancholic and sometimes narratively messy, Glimcher and screenwriter Cynthia Cidre don't always cross their t's and dot their i's. But in the face of such juice, who cares?

The Castillo brothers, Cesar (Armand Assante) and Nestor (Antonio Banderas), hit New York in 1952 determined to make their fortune with a mambo band. The brash, womanizing Cesar is all macho strut and ambition, but underneath his exhibitionistic preening ("He thinks he's the last Coca-Cola in the desert, " quips one woman) lurks a wild, self-destructive pride. His quieter younger brother Nestor, the trumpet player, self-destructs on the altar of romantic longing: his obsession with the beauty he left behind in Cuba poisons his marriage to the sweet Dolores (Maruschka Detmers).

There's depth and complexity to the characters in "Mambo Kings." Glimcher relishes them, but doesn't let them off the hook. Destined for a moment of glory when they appear with their idol Desi Arnaz (played by Desi Jr.) on "I Love Lucy," they avidly participate in their own downfall, clinging stubbornly to their delusions. Assante is electrifying as Cesar, as charming as he is scary. You can quibble with his Cuban accent, but his charisma is undeniable. Banderas (star of many Pedro Almodovar films) had to learn English to play this role, but you wouldn't know it: he plumbs all the nuances of charm and self-pity in Nestor's melancholic soul. Detmers and Cathy Moriarty, as the cigarette girl Cesar takes up with, contribute mightily to the film's richly physical aura-as do Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, who preside over the musical festivities like deities.

Glimcher was smart to surround himself with top-notch talents--Claire Simpson's editing, Stuart Wurtzel's production design, Michael Ballhaus's cinematography and Robert Krafts musical compilation all work toward the same end, a sense of extravagant gestures relished for their own sake, and damn the consequences. "The Mambo Kings" suffers from an attenuated last act, but its intoxicating pulse never falters. Like that heady moment when the brothers first enter the golden-hued Palladium, throbbing with mambo mania, Glimcher's movie knows how to let down its hair and live for the night.