The Mask (1994): Cuban Pete Busts the Cops

The Mask is a live action/CGI superhero comedy loosely based on the Dark Horse Comics of the same name. It was a huge blockbuster success, both critically and financially and helped launch its lead into superstardom. It’s also a s-mooookin’ good time.

The story follow a shy and introverted bank employee named Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey), who discovers an odd wooden mask down by the waterfront. He takes it home, and when he tries it on, it transforms him into a wild, yellow zoot-suited, green-faced alter-ego with cartoon physics and a penchant for mischief. Using his new powers for good, he takes on a nasty local mob boss and his clan of gangsters while simultaneously Looney Toon-ing his way out police capture and falling for the beautiful, leggy, nightclub singer and mob girlfriend Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz), all with the help of Milo, his trusty Jack Russell Terrier.

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Directed by Chuck Russell, this over-the-top self-aware slice of insanity should have flopped but instead exceeds all expectation because of its perfect casting. It’s doubtful anyone could have made this work as well as it does simply because Carrey is endlessly watchable in a role that finds a way to harness the near kinetic energy of his comedic styling. The rubber-faced comedian spends 101 minutes at Warp Factor Kablooey, gleefully trampling the word “nuanced” into a fine mushy pulp. And then Milo pees on it. There’s hardly a moment to breathe as he continuously contorts himself into one zany bit after another, with each just as sharp and on target as the one before. That’s a rare thing and The Mask delivers a loud, colorful and often very funny one-man comedy tour-de-force full of clever one-liners, Saturday morning cartoon violence, and plenty of winks at the audience, many of them for adults. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having Cameron Diaz to look at either.

The Mask
Cameron Diaz (The Mask, 1994)

While irreverence might be the name of the game here–with a few fourth wall breaks to boot–there is an inspired genius to the film that makes this a step above the norm. With Carrey’s manic performance leading the way, the fast pace, the well-written dialog, the adorable pooch, and the great gags, make this comic book adaptation one of the best. And like every movie, it has one great moment.

Cuban Pete

Implicated in a bank heist because of his pajamas (just go with me on this), Ipkiss is cornered by police in a city park where he set up a meeting between his friend (the Mask) and Tina. Shy and hopelessly insecure, he’s a wreck around the beautiful Tina, who is clearly smitten with the regular Ipkiss, but he ducks behind the bushes anyway and dons the Mask, re-emerging as a French stereotype, wearing a striped shirt and beret. He attempts to seduce he, using a number of sexual double entendres before police, who have been hiding in the bushes, move in, led by Lieutenant Kellaway (Peter Riegert). He’s be tracking Ipkiss and his antics and thinks he’s got the swirly-whirly character under arms at last. Little does he know. Two men search the green-faced trouble-maker, and from there, things go so far off the rails, there’s doubt the train ever existed. On his person, a pile of oddities are collected from The Mask, including a rubber chicken and a bazooka (which he assures he has a license for). By the time they get everything out of his pockets, Ipkiss has the befuddled cops in handcuffs and easily zips away. But he’s not out of the woods yet.

The Mask
The Mask, 1994

He makes a rush for the park’s gate and in a blur, blockades the heavy doors with planks of wood and a giant chain, hammering away in high speed. Thinking he’s locked the police inside, he spins around, only to face the entire police department on this side, all of whom have him nearly surrounded as they line up their cars and repel off the nearby roofs. Ipkiss is rightfully surprised and literally goes bug-eyed at the sight.

The Mask
The Mask, 1994

Caught and cornered, it looks like Ipkiss is done for, but we all know that ain’t the case. As the police draw their guns and make a show of force, seemingly putting Ipkiss out of business, the cunning master of disguise hatches a plan. And given the same situation, you might think making a run for it should do the trick. Maybe even try talking your way out. Heck, you might even weep like a baby and beg for sympathy. The Mask though? No. Not this dizzying dynamo. Instead, he conjures up Cuban Pete. Who is Cuban Pete? This is Cuban Pete:

The Mask
Jim Carrey (The Mask, 1994)

In a blink of an eye, Ipkiss transforms once again, this time into a Calypso dancer, complete with maracas and tight white pants. With the police car spotlights shining right at him, he naturally starts up a show, because what else could he do. You’d probably think police would put up with about 100% of none of that, but since our hero is just getting started, they end up uncontrollably joining the evening’s entertainment, singing and dancing along to José Norman‘s 1936 classic, Cuban Pete. Chick chicky boom, chick chicky boom.

The Mask
The Mask, 1994

The sheer absurdity of the Cuban Pete moment would easily derail a lesser film. Characters spontaneously breaking into song is always a risk in movies not of the musical genre but Carrey and company not only pull it off, it has become one of the most iconic scenes in the film. And with good reason.

The transition from the park bench–where the always in control Mask toys with the police–to the main street where he demonstrates his skills over an entire force, reveals just how powerful The Mask, truly is. Simply by willing something to be, it happens, and while we’ve seen it have authority over a few select people prior, this wholesale influential domination of dozens of cops really puts the character into a new light. What’s interesting though is how Lieutenant Kellaway seems almost totally immune, spending the entirety of the moment (and film) in frantic, hapless, pursuit. It betrays the real power of the Mask’s influence and its limitations.

The Mask, as established in the comic, gives the wearer unlimited physical imperviousness and the ability to alter reality, prone to ultra-violence. Here, it extends to an area of influence over weak-willed minds, and is only as dangerous as the wearer’s own characteristics. Lieutenant Kellaway is not affected by The Mask but remains a victim of his influence over everything else. Kellaway is the grounded realist in the film, the center of objectiveness, unbelieving of the fantastical, a purveyor of the practical. While he sees what is happening, it doesn’t cloud his imagination. He has no room for humor in the story. Because of this, he becomes the ‘straight man’ in the long reel of gags, and Riegert is perfectly cast in the part. He allows us to laugh.

The Cuban Pete moment could have easily been a bombastic, wildly violent sequence if it were to stick to the comic book roots, but instead turns it into a fun, colorful, decidedly non-violent musical moment. Like nearly all of the movie, it’s clever and inventive. The Mask is a Gatling gun of misdirection and blurry fun, zipping about in speeds so fast, it’s often nothing but streaks of fuzzy color. But there’s a lot of depth in the madness, even if it takes a while to reach. The Mask’s evasion of–and Calypso dance in front of–police is the best example of the character’s ability and reason why he succeeds as one of cinema’s most endearing heroes. Cartoonishly over-the-top, he is also good-natured and never so aggressive or destructive as to be mean and unlikable. That’s clearly a by-product of Carrey’s infectious performance, and helps make Cuban Pete one great moment.

The Mask (1994): Cuban Pete Busts the Cops

Credits

Director: Chuck Russell
Writers: Michael Fallon, Mark Verheiden
Stars: Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Riegert

3.5
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