Director James Griffiths has clearly seen a lot of movies like his debut feature, Cuban Fury, and you probably have too. Smart, sensitive, and respectful Bruce (Nick Frost), a moderately successful engineer, almost immediately falls for the new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones), though he’s hesitant to do anything about it. This, in turn, allows his deliriously juvenile co-worker, Drew (Chris O’Dowd), to make the first move by taking her out dancing. The rub is that, in his youth, Bruce was a salsa prodigy, the very same dance style that Julia favors. Jon Brown’s script builds the sort of familiar three-act, overcome-your-past-for-your-future setup you’d expect from this premise, with Bruce getting back into training in time for a local competition, but he does so in a way that slyly augments the expected turns of the narrative, if ultimately not nearly enough. It’s why the climactic dance-off between Drew and Bruce seems far more important to all involved than Bruce and Julia’s concluding twirl across the dance floor.
Cuban Fury is thin on concept and limited in style, but the filmmakers have the good sense to let their characters remain playful and goofy throughout. To that end, Griffiths stocks his film with distinct, creative comic performers, beginning with Frost in his first lead role. Here, his physical ambitions as a comic are just as pronounced as his delivery and timing, and he makes the more plot-driven sequences feel substantial (or at the very least charming) rather than obligatory. His scenes with both Olivia Colman, as Bruce’s sister and ex-dancing partner, and Ian McShane, as their hardened coach, are packed with improvised, inventive asides that mildly subvert the story’s familiar structure. Kayvan Novak’s Bejan, Bruce’s dance-class friend and style guru, similarly helps the film find its own comedic pace, pumping Bruce up with wildly exaggerated speeches centered around quotes from 1980s comedies. Not for nothing does Cuban Fury vaguely play out like The Karate Kid in a parallel universe wherein the titular teen cowers and quits working with Miyagi.
This open fondness for well-known adolescent comedies and their stock rewards, however, limits the film’s ambitions, and there’s a distracting lack of rhythm in the narrative flow. Cuban Fury often falls into that sitcom trap where the editing suggests a rush to get to the next joke or plot turn. The film is consistently funny, but similarly frustrating for deferring to a pleasant nostalgia rather than finding its own beat and exploring the emotions and experiences that stir up these characters’ unlikely levity. And the script’s marginal self-awareness doesn’t elevate the film above the ilk it aspires to, and as such comes off as more of an amiable retread with sharper jokes. Ultimately, Cuban Fury proves successful in evoking the same unforced sweetness of those films, but often feels locked into a two-step rather than really letting its proverbial hips shake.