I’ve never criticized a Bruce Lee movie for having a weak plot and poor dialogue, because those things are beside the point. Witnessing Lee’s artistry as a physical performer is the strength of his movies, which rise or fall based on how well the camera captures his every move.
Dance movies, for the most part, are the same way. When it comes to movies where the characters express themselves through dance above all else, film lovers and critics should dissect the footwork, not the plot or characters.
I honestly gave up on the Step Up franchise years ago. I caught the original 2006 movie, which is best remembered today for being the movie that introduced us to Channing Tatum, whose on-screen co-star, Jenna Dewan, is now Mrs. Tatum. How sweet. Too bad their movie sucks. Aside from the soundtrack, nothing about the first installment sticks in the mind, including the dancing.
The surprisingly engaging Step Up 2 The Streets had two big aces up its sleeve: the lead, Briana Evigan, is a firecracker that the camera loves and the dancing in the rain finale is a sensational number worthy of a thumbs up from Gene Kelly himself. As for the story, dialogue, characterizations… did I mention that amazing rain dance?
I threw in the towel on these movies until Bud Galarita, an old friend of mine, turned me the other way. Bud goes by the name DJ Blast (check him out, his beats are sick, yo!). He talked my wife and I into watching Steps 3-4 with him and his family, all of whom are big fans. I was skeptical, but I think he’s on to something.
The Steps hearken back to Breakin and the still-wonderful Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, neither of which offered fresh storytelling but are great fun as dance showcases. Just as important (and Bud was adamant about this), the Step movies are good-natured, cheerful and devoid of mopey, angst-filled teens. Instead of breaking out into gang wars, these teens challenge one another in bloodless, breathlessly choreographed dance offs. Anyone familiar with West Side Story knows how cool it is to hold one’s own in a gang dance battle.
Step Up 3-D has a number that comes out of nowhere, in which Moose and Camille, the film’s hero and sweetheart, break out into an old-fashioned dance on a city street. Filmed in one take, it’s not just the best scene in the movie, but a toe-tapping hall of famer that stands with the best. Then there’s Step Up Revolution, which changes the approach from street “battles” to flash mob performance art. Take away the plot and the film is pretty fantastic.
Now there’s Step Up All In, in which many of the established characters from the prior entries (yes, they’re not stand alone movies but one, big series with continuing plot lines) battle in a Las Vegas competition.
Here’s what works: the dance numbers that appear spur of the moment (like a carnival ride set to Bobby Brown) are utterly charming and Evigan–good luck taking your eyes off of her. What doesn’t work: the big numbers feel overproduced, I grew sick of the unfunny ethnic stereotypes and the plot is mostly silly but sometimes really dumb (we didn’t need a long scene of the crew breaking up, when the ending is such a given).
I liked Step Up 2-4 better but Bud was right–there’s a genuine sweetness and likability to these movies that’s old fashioned and rare. To rate this properly: the dancing gets four stars, the acting a generous two stars, the screenplay a single star and the filmmaking three stars. I’ll split the difference with two stars but admit that I like these movies, because the dancing is really something to see.