Friday 22 May 2020

Movie Review: Cuba (1979)

A drama and romance with some revolutionary action, Cuba is overstuffed with mostly unfulfilled potential but boasts exotic settings and quality production values.

It's the late 1950s, and Cuba's leftist revolution is close to achieving victory. Retired British Major Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) arrives to help prop-up the right-wing Batista military dictatorship. Hired by General Bello (Martin Balsam), Dapes quickly realizes the corrupt regime is on its last legs.

Also in Havana is a collection of foreigners hustling for a living in the shadow of revolution. American businessman Gutman (Jack Weston) is looking to invest in local industry, and shady entrepreneur Skinner (Denholm Elliott) runs a private airline supplying weapons to the rebels. Exotic stripper Miss Wonderly (Louisa Moritz) is trying to attract crowds to her tacky show, helped by her hustling agent (Dave King).

Meanwhile Alexandra (Alex) Pulido (Brooke Adams) is running the business empire of her father-in-law Don Jose (Walter Gotell). Her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon) is a useless womanizer carrying on an affair with sultry factory worker Therese (Lonette McKee). Alex and Dapes were lovers at the end of World War Two. Now they reconnect and he romantically pursues her, but a lot has changed over 15 years.

Intended as a simmering multi-character sweaty drama set against a tumultuous backdrop, Cuba carries clear wannabe echoes of Casablanca. Director Richard Lester and writer Charles Wood conjure up all the raw material, with on-location filming in Spain creating an appealing, colourful and earthy aesthetic. Lester is thoughtful about his shot selection, and Cuba is a stylish exercise in capturing the dying days of a decaying regime.

The first freewheeling hour introduces the myriad characters and adds tangy local spice in the form of class, wealth, and urban-rural divides, but the film then stumbles. The direction is set but the specific destination goes missing and momentum is squandered. The attempted romance between Dapes and Alex, rendered clunky thanks to the prominently visible 18 year age difference between Connery and Adams, never ignites but is awkwardly allowed to dominate. Some truly awful and emotionally dissonant dialogue exchanges appear conceived on the spot and the second half sags into an underwritten slog.

Some short and sharp action scenes inject jolts of energy. Dapes and a group of incompetent regime soldiers encounter a revolutionary scouting squad; an attack on a swanky dinner party leaves multiple casualties; and a final climax at a gasoline depot is appropriately noisy if disjointed. Meanwhile, a wayward young assassin selects various targets but almost comically hits everything other than what he aims for.

Sean Connery appears unsure how much to import from his Bond persona and Brooke Adams suffers from Lester's penchant to linger on her face for just too long at every opportunity. Cuba works best if the derivative plot and characters are largely ignored, and the collection of vignettes are admired for their soulful recreation of life during a decadent society's death.

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