Writer-director Leonard Schrader opens his film with a clip from the 1921 silent classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, showing Rudolph Valentino doing a sizzling tango. Dumb move. Schrader’s take on the “dance of sex without love” can’t compete. Though the film strikingly re-creates the Argentinian underworld in 1924, the lurid script has the depth of a travel brochure. Stephanie (Mathilda May) is bored with her life as the wife of an old-coot judge (Fernando Rey). On a cruise ship with her husband, she pretends to fall overboard but instead takes on the identity of a mail-order bride from Poland. What she sees as a momentary lark becomes a living hell when her groom, Zico (Esai Morales), sells her into white slavery. Forced to do the unspeakable, Stephanie is suicidal until she meets Cholo (Vincent D’Onofrio), a charismatic killer who’s not into sex. Cholo tangos.
Credit the cast for saying their lines without laughing. May looks great in her Louise Brooks hairdo, but D’Onofrio (Mystic Pizza) seems to have arrived in Buenos Aires via Brooklyn; his authenticity stops with his hair wax. There’s no confusing the erotic posturing of Naked Tango with the passion Schrader brought to his script for. Kiss of the Spider Woman. His debut as a director is merely a Dirty Dancing with pretensions.