Screen icon Sean Connery (The Offence, Meteor) and leads an all-star cast that includes Brooke Adams (Man on Fire), Jack Weston (Fuzz), Hector Elizondo (Taking of Pelham One Two Three), Denholm Elliott (The Wicked Lady), Chris Sarandon (Fright Night) and Martin Balsam (After the Fox) in this sweeping story about two old flames who become caught up in the turbulence and exhilaration of Cuba's 1959 revolution. Robert Dapes (Connery), a cynical British mercenary, comes to the country at the request of one of country's most corrupt functionaries, General Bello (Balsam). But once there, Dapes finds himself unable to ignore the brutality and depravity of the regime - and unable to resist Alexandra Pulido (Adams), an old lover now married to a wealthy Cuban landowner (Sarandon). Surrounded by volatile guerilla fighters and the human vultures present at all coups, he must come to terms with his shifting views if he has any though of getting out... alive. Wonderfully directed by Richard Lester (Juggernaut, How I Won the War) with stunning cinematography by David Watkins (Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire).
'Cuba' is an ambitious but low-key thriller-romance which debuted in 1979, but fell into obscurity by the dawn of the 1980s. The movie's anonymity is somewhat surprising, considering the appearance of several top Hollywood talents (particularly Sean Connery) working under a reknowned filmmaker, Richard Lester, whose whose most critical claim to fame was directing the Beatles in "Help!" and "A Hard Day's Night". Lester made "Cuba" prior to assuming the directorial reigns of "Superman II" from Richard Donner, and obviously, he was more successful with a movie starring a man of steel than a film featuring a man who would be king.
'Cuba' is set against the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and benefits greatly by the cinematography of David Watkins, best known for his stirring visuals from 'Chariots of Fire' and 'Out of Africa.' There is an emotional resonance to the contrasting settings and backgrounds which frame set the tone of the story. The breath-taking opulence of sprawling estates owned by the wealthy contrast sharply with the unsightiness of tin-corrugated shanty towns occupied by the poor and the disabled. Moreover, the obvious allure of the female leads (Brooke Adams and Lonette McKee) are presented strikingly but without the superficial Hollywood glamour. I imagine most female audiences will find Connery and Sarandon to be equally easy on the eyes. With all the great scenery, one would hope that a plot directly affected by social upheaval and economic instability taken straight from the history books, that there would be plenty of opportunities for intrigue and suspense. Unfortunately, the movie falls far short of its potential, due to aimless storytelling and lack of three-dimensional characters.
Sean Connery plays Major Robert Dapes, a British mercenary recruited by General Ruben Fulgencio Batista's regime to combat the rise and resolution of Fidel Castro. Though he does his job diligently, Major Dapes becomes distracted when he reunites with an old flame, played by Our Miss Brooke (Adams). She is tempted by the former 007, but also bears the burden of a cynical marriage to Juan Palido (Chris Sarandon), the carefree and careless son of a wealthy businessman, and carries the responsibility of running her father-in-law's factories. Other side character add to the storyline (including Jack Weston's broadly played role as the Ugly American entrepreneur), but no single one is infused with any real depth or singularity to warrant more than a modicum of care from the viewers.
Watching this movie approximately thirty years after its debut, I had the feeling that this kind of story would be better suited to telenovela than as a major motion picture given its modest level of sex and violence. 'Cuba' is enjoyable, but not memorable, and despite the epic historical setting, what happens to the characters feels trivial and superficial. (Perhaps that was the ironic intent of the story?) Indeed, I took a weekend break from the movie at the halfway point, and ended up having to re-watch most of it just to get me back on track.
Still, there are enough details and directorial touches which enhance the viewing experience. In one quick shot, a blind woman makes her way down a broken, dusty road illustrating the poverty of the downtrodden. In another sene, a Carol Doda-like stripper dances awkwardly onstage to a bored audience, embodying the tackiness of nightlife entertainment to the wealthy. Similar references were made in the classic masterpiece 'The Godfather, Part II' and with equal effect, although 'Cuba' is by no means on the same cinematic level.
The quality of the acting is equivalent to the quality of the production. Brooke Adams, who is probably best known as the main female protagonist in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers," is fairly convincing as Alexandra Lopez de Pulido, though her accent is not as consistent as her beauty. Back in the day, her dark-hair, wide eyes and angular features would often be confused with actresses like Margot Kidder and Karen Allen, both of whom display a familiar level of attitude and spunk. Here, Adams comes across as sexy, but not exactly seductive, which makes her onscreen chemisty with Sean Connery less than combustible. They talk a lot, and look dreamily into each other's eyes, but I detected more chemisty between Bond and Miss Moneypenny than between these two characters. Lonette McKee delivers a more sultry performance as the "other woman" and as a represenative of the working class. Her character is missed whenever she's not part of the story.
It was a quite a kick to see a pre-'Princess Bride' and pre-'Fright Night' Chris Sarandon broadly playing a swaggering, Latin-lover type. Sarandon's character could have been taken from some Spanish soap opera, swaggering under his political/economic power and answering the age-old question "qui es mas macho?" when it comes to the ladies. The only time he exhibits some vulnerability is when is father, played by Robert Loggia, ridicules his son openly for his idleness, and the humiliating resentment on Sarandon's face is quite clear. And of course, it was also fun to see Sean Connery appearing in the same setting with Denholm Elliot before their 10-year reunion as academic associates Dr. Henry Jones and Dr. Marcus Brody in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" even if no dialogue is exchanged.
As for the remainder of the movie, many interesting moments are buried under the less-than interesting dialogue and gunfire action which occurs every thirty minutes or so. The last third of 'Cuba' focuses on the impact of the revolution on Cuban society and industry - things would never be the same again. It would not be spoiling matters to say that based on this history, some character die, while other characters simply leave the scene. The movie thus ends on a 'Casablanca'-ish note, followed by coda filled with stock footage showing the rise of Castro. The images are affecting, but insufficient to save the movie from rising above average. As a thriller, 'Cuba' is too bland to excite, and as a romance, the movie is too dull to entice.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cuba' is presented with a mimimum of embellishments from Kino Lorber, pressed on to a BD25 disc in a standard keepcase with no additional inserts. The cover features the original theatrical release poster artwork, which is eye-catching in design. The Blu-ray showcases 'Cuba' in an MPEG-4 AVC-encoded picture with aspect ratio of 1.85:1, filling the most widescreen TVs and monitors.
'Cuba' looks better than I could have imagined for a nearly forty year old movie. When viewed casually, there is nothing to distract from one's visual involvement with this bright and clean picture. Closer examination does reveal a few anomalies in the picture, including some inconsistent sharpness from scene to scene, and a sprinkling of print damage and dirt here and there, but most noticeable during the opening credits. Otherwise, the transfer looks pretty darn good, with solid colors preserving the deep reds on Brooke Adams's dress and the different shades of brown and yellows appearing on clothing against a background of golden sunlight. The grain structure is preserved without being visually obtrusive.
The soundtrack to 'Cuba' allows your subwoofers and surround speakers to take a rest for this movie night viewing. The film offers simple and straightforward two-channel mono, albeit presented in DTS-Master Audio. The overall audio has limited dynamics even in scenes with gunfire and explosions, but the voices are clear and the dialogue is well-articulated in the mid-range.
Switching on my surround sound receiver for two-channel audio, I detected a flat, compressed output with minimum low bass response. There are obvious moments of post-production looping, especially in scenes where the dialogue does not match the visuals and voices suddenly sound dry and isolated from their environment. This issue is noticeable even without engaging any artificial surround sound decoding like Dolby Pro-logic II, and is clearly traceable to the original productions source and not due to the disc mastering.
Fans of 'Cuba' will have to resort to the autobiographies in print and on the internet in order to dig deeper into this film. There are no bonus materials covering its production, which means no audio commentary and no "behind the scenes" featurette. (To my knowledge, Director Lester rarely speaks publicly about his films, especially those as controversial as his work on the 'Superman' series.)
Instead, viewers are presented with the original trailer, as well as trailers to other unrelated movies, some of which feature Sean Connery. These are as follows:
'Cuba' (1:55, SD) This is an effective trailer to the main feature.
'The Great Train Robbery' (SD, 2:51) Spotlighting this moderately popular movie starring Sean Connery and Lesley Ann-Down, this extended preview has washed out colors and appears to be taken from a very worn print.
'Juggernaut' (SD, 2:54) This preview spotlights another "forgotten" Richard Lester film from the early 1970s and features big-name stars like Richard Harris and Anthony Hopkins.
'Meteor' (SD, 3:36) This cheesy, pre-'Armageddon' and pre-'Deep Impact' epic is only memorable for its blatant 'Superman'-styled movie credits and plays like any Irwin Allen distater film from the 1970's.
'The Offence' (SD, 1:52) is a disarming trailer which features some slow-motion action and a openly puzzled Sean Connery. (It could very well play as the opening shot of the movie, making viewers wonder just what it's all about.)
It's good to see "forgotten" titles by critically acclaimed directors make their way to the Blu-ray format, especially when such filmmakers have retired from Hollywood. While much of Richard Lester's major work has been preserved on high definition, his less-celebrated films like 'Cuba' are a welcome addition to the digital archives. I expect fans to pick this Blu-ray immediately. For those interested in a movie with stronger characters and a more thrilling story, it's better to look elsewhere.