- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

It’s a sweet irony that, at a time of intense scrutiny of media debauchery, a belated new installment in the “Dirty Dancing” franchise seems quite harmless.

That’s not to say the Cuban dancing performed throughout “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” won’t give some parents heartburn, but compared to dancing styles in vogue in many high schools today, the moves here barely register on the scandal meter.

Maybe it’s our new leads, Romola Garai and Diego Luna (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”).

Both are attractive, winsome in the appropriate doses but utterly spark-free.

“Havana Nights” swaps out the Catskills, N.Y., setting of the original for Cuba on the cusp of its Castro-led revolution.

Innocent Katey (Miss Garai) moves to Havana with her family when her silver-haired papa (John Slattery) gets a job transfer to the Cuban capital. She’s the proverbial fish out of water, both with the Cuban natives and with her jet-setting American friends, who treat the restaurant staff at the country club like indentured servants.

Enter Javier (Mr. Luna), a waiter at said country club. Katey apologizes to Javier after one of her fellow Americans flings a rude remark his way, but he rebuffs her kindness. The two meet again on Havana’s streets, where Javier and his neighbors dance away their leisure time. The delicately handsome Javier seems more vulnerable on his own turf.

Soon the duo are doing some dancing of their own, denying their mutual attraction but managing to see each other as much as possible.

Through some maladroit plot kinks, the pair enter a local dance contest, urged on in part by an American dance instructor who looks an awful lot like Patrick Swayze.

Will love twinkle on the dance floor? Will the revolution prove the ultimate buzz kill? Or, will moviegoers rent the 1987 original to relive the “time of their lives”?

Let’s hope it’s the latter, even if “Havana Nights” is as watchable as it is bland.

What made the soapy original, beyond some goose-bump-raising dance sequences, was the danger inherent in the relationship.

Innocent Baby (Jennifer Grey) became a woman by hanging around with an older dance instructor (Mr. Swayze).

Here, Mr. Luna looks as young as, if not younger than, Miss Garai. And the culture clash between the two doesn’t make too many people sweat. Even Katey’s parents quickly shrug off their reflexive bigotry.

Mr. Swayze’s cameo as a dance instructor who coaxes Katey into teaming up with Javier provides the film’s biggest jolt. That solitary tug of nostalgia contains far more juice than anything else “Nights” can muster. The actor’s brisk dance moves seem larger, more commanding than anything the rest of the athletic cast can summon.

All of this invites a larger question: Who really needed a sequel? The idea has kicked around Hollywood’s derivative imaginations for more than a decade, with names like Ricky Martin and Britney Spears rumored to be attached at various points.

Maybe nothing materialized because nothing should have.

The first “Dancing” captivated a large swath of young America, yielded two hit soundtracks and made Mr. Swayze a star, at least temporarily.

Couldn’t we have just left it at that?

**

WHAT: “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexual situations, alcohol use and violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Guy Ferland. Written by Ronald Bass and Pamela Gray. Choreography by JoAnn Jansen

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

WEB SITE: www.dirtydancinghavananights.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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