Havana

1990, Movie, R, 145 mins

Review

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The seventh teaming of Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and the first since 1985's Best Picture Oscar winner OUT OF AFRICA, opens late in 1958 with gambler Jack Weil (Redford) sailing for the then wide-open city of Havana. On board, he meets the lovely Bobby Duran (Lena Olin) and immediately falls for her. Bobby is somehow involved with the revolution which is taking place in Cuba, siding with the rebel forces led by Fidel Castro against the incumbent government under the rule of Fulgencio Batista. Though Jack is not the least bit political, he chivalrously agrees to help her do some smuggling to aid the rebels. Once in Havana, they go their separate ways, with Jack heading off to visit his old friend, mob-connected casino operator Joe Volpi (Alan Arkin). Jack's ready for a big score, he tells Volpi, asking his friend to approach gang kingpin Meyer Lansky (Mark Rydell) with the idea of backing Jack in a high-stakes game against some high rollers. The philosophical Volpi has little enthisiasm for the propositon, but reluctantly agrees to do his friend's bidding.

Later, Jack goes out on the town with another friend, Cuban journalist Julio Ramos (Tony Plana). In a restaurant, Jack spots Bobby, who is accompanied by her husband Arturo (Raul Julia). Though he is from a wealthy, politically well-connected family, Arturo, too, supports the rebel cause. When he meets Jack, he thanks him for helping Bobby, and asks if he would care to continue his involvement with the "cause." Jack declines, and he and Ramos continue on their way, picking up a couple of female American tourists (Betsy Brantley and Lise Cutter) who are looking for the "real" Havana. When Ramos gets drunk and passes out, Jack takes the girls to a club that features live sex shows, then heads back to their hotel room where the three engage in a live sex show of their own. The next morning, newspapers report that Arturo has been killed by government forces. Meanwhile, Volpi has arranged for Jack to get in on the big game he seeks, but Jack instead engages in a more exciting game as he attempts to protect Bobby from the dangers posed by the Battista forces.

HAVANA's greatest achievement is in its stunning production design. Unable to get permission from the US government to film in Cuba, Pollack and his crew evaluated alternate sites throughout the Caribbean, finally settling on the Dominican Republic. There a replica of Havana of the 1950s was stunningly recreated, a quarter-mile long stretch complete with hotels, casinos, nightclubs, and restaurants which included exact replicas of the Floridita Bar, the department store El Encanto, and the offices of the newspaper El Pais. Teaming with cars, locals, and tourists, the set successfully evokes a Havana that was, at the time, considered to be the sexiest and most corrupt city in the world.

Unfortunately, against that impressive backdrop, Pollack mounts a film that is lifeless and slow-moving, offering neither a compelling love story nor a tense tale of a city in turmoil. Part of the problem is that Redford simply isn't right for the part of the somewhat seedy professional gambler. Sure, the lines of age are visible on his face, he sports a tattoo (lingered over by the camera during a card game, lest anyone miss it), and he engages in sordid sex with adventurous tourists, but he's still pretty boy, erstwhile romantic leading man Robert Redford. To work, Jack needs to have an edge of cynicism that Redford just isn't able to supply. Olin, who won an Oscar nomination for her steamy performance in ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY, is certainly a lovely woman, but here she is so reserved that it is difficult to believe that she possesses the fiery passion that would lead her to pick up the rebel cause. She and Redford have no chemistry together so that their love affair is sadly lacking in the immediacy it needs. In fact, all the performances are so subdued that the film never captures the tumult, excitement, and peril that engulfed Havana as Castro's forces closed in on the city. A much better account of the same period can be seen in Richard Lester's little-seen CUBA (1979), a darkly comic film starring Sean Connery. The previous efforts of Pollack and Redford, including OUT OF AFRICA, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, and THE WAY WE WERE, generally were well-received by audiences, but HAVANA enjoyed no such success, disappearing from theaters quickly after its release. The film earned an Oscar nomination for its score. leave a comment

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