The Mambo Kings (1992) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Sometimes very good movies never find an audience. Such was the case with Mambo Kings, a slick soap opera story about two Cuban brothers who hope to establish themselves as musicians in New York in the early 1950s. The older brother is a cocky, sexually aggressive tough guy with unlimited energy (Armand Assante), and the other is a sensitive, dreamy-eyed romantic (Antonio Banderas) who can't ever seem to recover from losing the love of his life back in Cuba.

The plot developments are just the usual grist for the soap opera mill. The story begins in Cuba when the older brother takes a knife from a mafioso club owner who had stolen the younger brother's dream woman, Maria. The older brother finds out a crucial secret after he gets knifed. It turns Maria was forced into Hobson's choice - marry the gangster or watch Banderas die. Maria therefore not only married the bad guy but told Banderas she did it for love, because she knew that was the only way she could keep her real beloved out of Cuba, and therefore alive. Maria told Assante the truth, but made him swear an oath never to tell Banderas, an oath which would later haunt both brothers.

You get the idea.

Life in the United States centers around the trails and tribulations of making it in the music business. The boys have the talent, but they don't know how to deal with corrupt promoters and shady club owners. Before they know it, they are blackballed from the big clubs and are playing Bar Mitzvahs for pocket change. Their fortunes change when they run into Desi Arnaz (played by Desi Arnaz, Jr.), who gives them a big break by letting them perform one of their numbers on I Love Lucy. Their TV appearance is shown in a brilliant sequence which  seamlessly intercuts our heroes with actual period footage of Lucille Ball, making it seem as if they really were having a conversation with America's favorite redhead.

While the lads maneuver through the entertainment industry, they argue frequently because they have very different goals in life. Meanwhile, their private lives get complicated. Banderas marries a schoolteacher, but never really loves her because he can't forget his beloved Maria back in Cuba. Assante goes through an assortment of sexy women, but can't confess the identity of his own true love because it is the schoolteacher who married his brother.

Tragedy ensues.

The melodramatic plot, although reasonably interesting, is not a reason to watch the film. There are, however, two very good reasons:

  • Brilliant characterization from Assante and Banderas, who seem to have been born to play these two roles.
    • Like this movie, Assante always seems to be underrated and forgotten, although he is an exceptionally intelligent actor who can do just about anything from serious drama to comedy. In this film he plays the drums (convincingly) alongside Tito Puente, dances well, speaks some Spanish (he's a New Yorker, and his actual ethnic mixture is Italian-Irish), and just flat-out owns the screen whenever the camera comes near him, in a performance reminiscent of Anthony Quinn's career role in Zorba the Greek. Antonio Banderas also did an excellent job as the younger brother, but he was clearly the second banana in the film, although he went on to superstardom while Assante went on to ... well, whatever the hell he's doing now. I suppose he's now using all of that intelligence and talent to play TV game shows with Shadoe Stevens and Carrot Top. OK, I'm kidding. Assante works steadily in films, but seems to be relegated to cable and video projects lately, and has never seemed to reached the stardom he seemed to deserve.
    • By the way, props to Marushka Detmers, a Dutch actress who was entirely credible as a Cuban-American.


  • A tremendously enjoyable re-creation of the Cuban-American music scene from that era.
    • Tito Puente and Celia Cruz play themselves, and other music is provided by The Mambo All-Stars, Linda Ronstadt, Duke Ellington, and Los Lobos. If this music doesn't get your shoulders moving, it ain't never gonna happen. And if the lively Latin rhythms don't turn you on, there are also beautiful romantic ballads. Los Lobos provided the voices for Banderas and Assante in the Oscar-nominated "Beautiful Maria of My Soul", and the legendary Celia Cruz sang Guantanamera with most of the cast in a wedding scene.

If you enjoy Cuban music, this is mandatory viewing. Even if you don't care for the music, it is still a slick entertainment filled with great period flavor and intense emotions ranging from joyful energy to soulful romance to mourning. It would make a good date movie, even though it bombed in its original theatrical run.

I like the movie so much that I was hoping for more special features on the DVD..




  • Widescreen, anamorphically enhanced (16x9)- looks great
  • one brief "behind the scenes" featurette
  • full-length commentary by director Arne Glimcher
  • one additional scene that was not in the theatrical release


  • Marushka Detmers shows her breasts in a sex scene with Antonio Banderas.

  • Valerie McIntosh shows her breasts and a brief flash of her pubes in another sex scene with Antonio Banderas.

  • Antonio Banderas shows his bum in both sex scenes.

Movie on DVD Sound Track Source Novel  

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed only $6.7 million
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a B-. It is required viewing if you're even vaguely interested in Cuban music, and a solid date movie whether or not you care about the subject matter.

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