Tango equals sex equals death in writer-director Leonard Schrader’s fatally dark exploration of the 1920s tango underworld. The genesis for Tango was found among Argentine writer Manuel Puig’s unpublished manuscripts about the Buenos Aires underworld of the ’20s. The film is credited onscreen as ‘inspired by’ the late playwright.
Production casts French actress Mathilda May as Stephanie, restless new bride of a wealthy elderly Argentine judge (Fernando Ray). She slips her leash while on board a ship bound for Buenos Aires and trades identities with a waif who has just hurled herself overboard. May learns she is now Alma, a Polish mail-order bride bound for a rendezvous with her future husband on the docks.
He proves to be the handsome young Zico (Esai Morales), part of a wealthy Jewish household, and the future looks pleasant. But Zico is actually a gangster and a pimp who runs a tango bordello with his mercenary, cold-hearted mother (Cipe Lincovsky) and aloof, brutal ‘tango king’ brother, Cholo (Vincent D’Onofrio).
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Alma murders the first john they send her; after that the pic becomes a sort of underlit gangster chase thriller as the local mafia, known as the Black Hand, demands a sacrifice for the killing.
First-time director Schrader (brother of Paul) has put a vivid and specific vision on the screen, but his boldness with high melodrama is somewhat diminished by the sometimes-clumsy gangster action scenes.