There are dozens of sequels that turn up uninvited, years after their predecessor was first released. Some arrive without any kind of fanfare, while others appear with all the promotional backing available under the sun. Beware of those that arrive under the latter circumstances – sometimes the hype is designed to grab as much at the box office as the movie can manage before word of mouth kicks in and people begin to realise the movie is one to avoid. When the movie in question is a belated sequel to a much-loved original, any abundance of hype is perhaps the biggest clue that the sequel should be avoided. Here is one such example, a movie that came along seventeen years after the original, and still begs the question, why? (Read on for the answer.)
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) / D: Guy Ferland / 86m
Cast: Diego Luna, Romola Garai, Sela Ward, John Slattery, Jonathan Jackson, Mika Boorem, January Jones, René Lavan, Patrick Swayze, Mya
If you watch the opening credits of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights closely, you’ll find that one of the producers is called JoAnn Fregalette Jansen (she also has a small, non-speaking role in the movie itself). Jansen lived in Cuba, aged fifteen, during the period the movie is set in, 1958. Playwright Peter Sagal wrote a screenplay based on Jansen’s experiences of the Cuban Revolution, and her relationship with a Cuban revolutionary. The screenplay was titled Cuba Mine and was a serious examination of the events that occurred in Cuba at the time, and how the country’s political idealism became polluted by the Communist ideology that replaced the more liberal regime that existed in the Fifties.
The script was commissioned by Lawrence Bender in 1992. Bender was fresh from the success of producing Reservoir Dogs (1992), but the script went unproduced until Bender revisited it again ten years later. However, Sagal’s script was only used as the basis of a completely new script by Boaz Yakin and Victoria Arch. The end result? A disastrous attempt to recreate the magic of Dirty Dancing (1987).
With the original having proved so successful, and having gained a place within the cultural zeitgeist (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”), a sequel was always likely to appear eventually, but this is a movie that spends its thankfully short running time replicating the original’s storyline instead of coming up with something new. It’s the eternal problem facing sequels everywhere: how to combine enough DNA from the original movie with newer, fresher elements to make a satisfying whole. Sadly, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is a sequel that can’t even assemble enough DNA from its predecessor to make much of a difference. It’s perfunctory, lazy, and lacks impact.
It also has a hard time doing the one thing that it should get right above all else, namely the dance routines. Thanks to the movie’s Cuban setting, the music and dance numbers are meant to be energetic, effortlessly fluid, and somewhat mildly erotic, but thanks to the movie’s determined efforts to edit the dance sequences into bite-sized shots that often don’t match the moves on show immediately before and after each shot, the very elements that are meant to draw in an audience are undermined from the word go. Now this could be a conscious, artisitic decision made by director Guy Ferland and his editors, Luis Colina and Scott Richter, in which case the trio have no idea of how to put together a dance sequence; or it could be that Luna and Garai’s moves weren’t quite as impressive as everyone hoped and they needed a little “help” in looking so accomplished (you decide).
Elsewhere the movie is equally determined to rely on cinematic and cultural clichés in order to tell its story. If the movie was even remotely realistic, it would be easy to believe that, before the revolution, all Cubans were happy-go-lucky souls who never tired of singing and dancing on pretty much every street corner. There are moments of casual racism that don’t amount to anything in terms of the drama, as well as cursory references to the political struggle happening at the time. Luna’s hotel waiter, Javier, evinces his distrust of Americans only until Garai’s preppy Katey waves the lure of competition prize money under his nose, while Katey’s family hang around in the background waiting to be given something to do.
The performances are average, with Luna and Garai developing an uneasy chemistry that seems more convincing on the dance floor than anywhere else, while Ward and Slattery get to play good cop/bad cop once Katey’s relationship with Javier is revealed (the scene in question is notable for playing like an outtake from a TV soap opera). Spare a thought though for poor old Patrick Swayze, co-opted into the script as a dance class instructor who gets to show Katey some moves before being reduced to providing reaction shots during the dance competition. Swayze looks uncomfortable in his scenes, as if he’s having second thoughts about being in the movie but also realising it’s too late to back out.
The movie is a sloppy mess, shot through with an earnest quality that wants to be taken for drama. But like so much on display it’s often involuntary, as if the various elements of the screenplay were put together in a blender rather than a word processor. Ferland directs it all with little or no attention to the emotions of the characters – Garai spends quite a bit of time looking upset but gets over it all just as quickly as it’s started – but at least he manages to make the Puerto Rican locations look suitably beautiful, throwing in wondrous sunsets and sunrises with giddy, artistic abandon.
Rating: 3/10 – unimaginative, even in its dance routines, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights lacks a compelling storyline and characters to care about; with so many aspects not working to their full potential, the movie proves to be inferior in almost every way to its predecessor – and no one should be surprised.