Review by Wayne Richards
When Nick Frost’s pitch to make a dance film became a green lit reality, he probably had no clue of the tremendous amount of physical strain and mental anguish that awaited him. He has been surprisingly open about his laborious sojourn into salsa and the challenges he’s faced in making this movie. At one point during the proceedings, the demands of an overbearing choreographer reduced him to tears, leading him to abandon a day of work. A grueling seven month schedule (consisting of seven hours of daily dance training) transformed Nick Frost from portly sluggard into a bona fide salsa dancing powerhouse. This big boy can really boogie.
Given the popularity of decade-long running American television programs like "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance", a decent advertising campaign and proper marketing really could have saved this independent film from being a complete failure at the US box office. Although it screened in only 79 theaters, Frost's previous profitable outputs alongside Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright would have led me to believe that this film (Frost’s first leading role) should have been more of a stateside success. The bulk of earnings for CUBAN FURY came from UK moviegoers, who are certainly more aware of the brilliance and charm of funnyman Nick Frost than the average American viewer. After all, it is a British comedy. Regardless of its locales of financial successes or failures, CUBAN FURY saunters with a spirited heart and a fervid comedic grip.
Bruce (Frost) is a forty-something, yogurt-loving engineer content in his job working for a British machine manufacturing company, which is in the process of welcoming in a new American boss. The new boss arrives in the form of a beguiling beauty named Julia (Rashida Jones), who Bruce immediately falls for. Bruce’s overly obnoxious colleague and nemesis Drew (a perfectly cast Chris O’Dowd) is also attracted to Julia, and becomes an obstacle for Bruce as they both vie for her affection. Upon the discovery that Julia is into salsa dancing, Bruce becomes even more infatuated with her, as he was a trophy-hoarding competitive salsa phenomenon as a teenager. Being victimized by an unfortunate bullying incident (prior to the biggest national competition of his life) lead Bruce to turn his back on salsa, but seeing Julia dance inspires him to reclaim his dancing greatness.
The well-defined characters are at the heart of the film, and they succeed in bringing this underdog story to life. You root for Bruce the whole way, as he is the unlikely hero striving to overcome his limitations to meet his objective. O’Dowd shines as the repugnant pig Drew, relentlessly unleashing offensive, insulting barbs and constantly tormenting Bruce in the battle to win the girl. The always outstanding Ian McShane plays the pony tailed Ron Parfitt, a surly Mr. Miyagi-type mentor who reluctantly agrees to teach his ex-student Bruce in his quest to regain his salsa skills. Kayvan Novak gives a memorable performance as Bejan, an absurdly feminine and flamboyant dance buddy that serves as a fashion advisor and is a welcome source of encouragement for the timid Bruce.
Director James Griffiths helms his feature debut here, and his direction yields solid results. Although there are very familiar plot patterns, CUBAN FURY boasts an excellent, distinct cast that exudes graceful physicality combined with a sense of merriment that succeeds in outshining its formulaic predictability. If you could transform ROCKY IV or THE KARATE KID into a hilarious salsa dance flick, this would be it. 3 out of 4 stars