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Universal/1990/145m/WS 1.85

     Sydney Pollack’s big romantic production set against the backdrop of the last days of the Cuban Batista dictatorship is lush, beautiful to look at, but in the end it’s no more than Las Vegas showgirl. The flaccid screenplay tries all too hard to create a magic romance surrounded by graceful palm trees and revolutionary fervor. All the players in the game are consummate professionals, but the cards are stacked against them this time.
     Jack Weil is a professional gambler looking for a big score in a Havana casino. On the ferry from Key West to Cuba, Weil meets Bobby Duran, a classy lady who needs some help. Somewhere in between the casino tables of The Lido, run by Meyer Lansky manager Jack Volpe and the sordid streets of Havana, Jack must find direction. With the walls of Batista crumbling down around him, Jack falls for Bobby, plays cards, entertains ladies, and even finds time for an improbable jaunt into the country.
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Redford still has a way with the ladies. ©Universal

     Elements of Havana try hard to capture a hint of romantic vapor from a film like Casablanca. The classy, mysterious lady Weil falls for is married to a freedom fighter, just like Ilsa in Casablanca. And of course Weil gives her up to her husband in the end, even though he loves her. But Jack Weil lacks the appeal of Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Rick is a character who lost his way somewhere on his path to the Casbah, while Weil is nothing but a flashy man with the cards and the ladies. The Casinos fail to adequately conjure up images of Rick’s Café Americaine.
     The production design is quite remarkable. Havana, recreated on a massive Santo Domingo set, feels like the real McCoy. Credit director Pollack with creating an exciting and sleazy atmosphere. The camera lingers on interesting faces, glimpses into streetside windows, and captures the feeling of the city inside out. That’s almost part of the problem. You can sense that Pollack is desperate to dress up the talky drama with snazzy ambiance. Too bad it doesn’t work.
     The stars try to be as beautiful as the production. Robert Redford does his best to give Weil a world-weary cool, but it’s an empty façade. There’s even a gorgeous, classy, Swedish co-star in Lena Olin to play against Redford, echoing Casablanca. The usual suspects in Havana include Alan Arkin in an under-utilized turn as Jack Volpe and Raoul Julia as Arturo Duran. Thomas Milian gives as secret police colonel Menocal an interesting edge.
     Many of the scenes are shot with unusual lighting sources by cinematographer Owen Roizman, making the journey to video a bumpy road. But, the blend of colors is interesting, and while some of the images are soft and fuzzy, the visual beauty of Havana comes through on this widescreen DVD. This is one DVD that could have really used the extra resolution of an anamorphic transfer, but Havana isn’t likely to see a new transfer until they bring big name casinos back to Cuba. The Dolby Digital 2-channel sound does great with the Latin beat of the background music. Surround information is quite adequate, if not overly active.