By Ralph Novak
September 16, 1991 12:00 PM

Vincent D’Onofrio, Mathilda May

Although this peculiar movie is set in Argentina in 1924, it has a most definitely American ’90s attitude. D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) is a low-level hoodlum who has a Valentino complex. He dresses like a gaucho, disdains sex (“All sex is the same; it leaves you more sad.”) and is so obsessed with dancing that even when he’s walking down the street, he spontaneously breaks into little gliding steps. In other words, his philosophy clearly is: It takes one to tango.

Things get complicated when he meets May (Lifeforce), who is fleeing husband Fernando Rey. She isn’t that thrilled to end up as a prisoner in a tan-go-themed brothel run by D’Onofrio’s Jewish buddy, Esai Morales. (Great emphasis is placed on Morales’s Jewishness, for no clear reason.) On the other hand, she’s intrigued because D’Onofrio is interested in her body, but only to drag it around the dance floor.

Written and directed by Leonard (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Schrader, inspired by author Manuel Puig, the film is so full of ominous characters and moody scenes that it would seem fatally pretentious if it weren’t so loopy. At one point D’Onofrio blindfolds May so they can tango the night away in the blood pit of a slaughterhouse—now this is dirty dancing—to the strains of a tango band, also blindfolded. There are also slashings and stabbings, a head pushed into boiling soup, shootings and so much violence you might think he is speaking literally when a newly emotional D’Onofrio tells May, “You cut out my heart and left me for dead.”

Intriguing but excessive, stylized but not always coherent, this is something like Party Machine with Nia Peeples, only with more knives and audit) and less of a beat. (R)