Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: R for language, some violence and mature themes
Run Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
I worry when a film is “inspired by a true story”, steeling myself for saccharine pabulum and a truckload of tearful clichés evocative of the triumphant side of life. Expectations met, but for the surprisingly smooth stylings of leading man Antonio Banderas.
This song has been sung before, from the ghettoed hallways of “Dangerous Minds” to the storied slums of “Mad Hot Ballroom”. Dead-end dreams turn contemporary fantasies courtesy the power of music/education/dance/fill-in-the-blank.
magician is silky ballroom dance instructor Pierre Dulaine (Banderas). A chance
encounter with a misunderstood thug terrorizing an innocent vehicle with a
menacing 5-iron is Dulaine’s inner-city epiphany. Why not keep hostile
His “assignment” is a group of high school toughs in perpetual after-school detention, their lives fraught with abuse, emotional disconnect, and corruption. Much to Dulaine’s dismay their tunes of choice are an angry mix of gangsta rap and hip-hop.
The charismatic fox-trotter doesn’t miss a beat in turning the kids onto Gershwin and instructing them to trip the light fantastic with startling alacrity. Naturally there are stumbling blocks along the way: a high-strung high school principal (Alfre Woodard) on a short temperamental tether, the looming specter of budget cuts and careworn youth with deep fissures of issues with trust. Not to mention the ubiquitous city-wide dance competition and its rapidly-approaching deadline.
To Banderas’ credit he delivers every cliché as if it’s coming from the heart -- “If you like dancing you were made to dance”, “Dance for yourself, not for anyone else” – and damned if his fervent sincerity didn’t have me bopping a sympathetic rumba. Doesn’t hurt that Antonio fills out a black tie and tails with sexy Latin panache. Ole!
While Dulaine is preaching teamwork and dignity the rest of us can wallow in the dance. Even as the plot is breaking down into the inevitable one-two, one-two of predictability and social stereotyping the glorious flow of tango, merengue and waltz fills the screen with capricious energy. Banderas’ sultry tango demo itself is worth the price of admission.
Check your brain at the door and give in to the serio-comic moves of this hackneyed charmer.