Havana Is A Modern Retelling Of Casablanca That Doesn’t Quite Hit The Mark

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You know something? Casablanca is a real classic. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s acting make that film, with a story about lost loves and letting go in the middle of the second World War, close to legendary in movie history. So it’s no surprise that directors and scriptwriters would think about remaking the plot and making it big in the modern era.

That’s exactly what director Sydney Pollack tried to do with 1990’s Havana, pretty much a retelling of Casablanca’s story set during the Cuban Revolutionary War, with almost the same character archetypes. Don’t believe me? You can watch the trailer and judge for yourself.

In Havana, Robert Redford and leading lady Lena Olin try their absolute best to channel Bogart laconic swagger and Bergman’s affected acting, except in a more contemporary and Western setting. The movie begins on Christmas Eve of 1958 in Havana, when Roberta Duran (played by Lena Olin) asks American Jack Weil (played by Robert Redford) to help her smuggle radios for the Cuban revolutionaries. Weil agrees to this plan only as a way to approach Roberta romantically, but she reveals that she is actually married. Weil eventually meets with Roberta’s husband, Dr. Arturo Duran (played by the late Raul Julia) and is invited to dinner at their house as a show of gratitude for his help.

Eventually, the Cuban police make arrests around Havana. Weil learns that Arturo was arrested and killed by them, and also that Roberta was arrested and tortured alongside her husband. Weil manages to call in a favor to free Roberta, and eventually grows closer and falls in love with her. Long story short, Weil tries to woo Roberta and try to get her out of Cuba, but like Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, it turns out that Arturo is still alive, and the relationships become complicated. Eventually, also like in Casablanca, Weil has to let Roberta go back to her husband, but unlike the optimistic and mature ending of the original movie, Weil still holds out hope that Roberta finds her way to the United States by the film’s end, even though it’s highly unlikely.

It’s really hard to review and even talk about Havana‘s plot without comparing it to Casablanca. Because it’s a retelling of a classic film (that’s also set a really high standard for stories that come after it) and an intentional homage to it, a reviewer would really have to go out of their way to not call back to the earlier film. It’s next to impossible because the remaking is right there, but it’s also possible to take the movie on its own merits if one really wanted to.

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Robert Redford tries his best in Havana to be a compelling leading man, a smooth operator with bravado, but it seems as though some part of the filmmaking does him little favors on that aspect.

The film feels bland, contrived, and forced, as though it’s completely relying on the sheer magic of the Casablanca formula (look, there it is again) and there seems to be a lack of energy and chemistry with Redford’s younger costar Lena Olin.

What does work for Havana is its great soundtrack, with 1950s jazz of the time sung by musician Fats Domino. Again, that factor is an intentional callback to the previous film.

So if the entirety of Havana is a deliberate film reference to Casablanca, then how are we to really review it and take it on its own merit? What do I tell you, if you ask me what you should do if you come across Havana in a DVD shelf in a store or a Netflix lineup or on TV while you’re channel-surfing? Should I tell you to just go watch Casablanca instead? But what if you were really interested, what if you were a Robert Redford fan, or a Sydney Pollack fan, or what if you’re a Casablanca junkie who wants to watch all the derivatives that come from that classic movie? It still feels like you’re better off watching the original because so many things are taken straight from it.

It’s definitely one thing to pay homage to a film that really inspired you, it’s also another thing to retell the story because you really like it, but at least a director should make a faithful and creative interpretation. There’s really just a lot of things off with Havana that force me to not give it a stellar review. You can watch it at your own risk, however.

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