'Step Up Revolution' Still Has Some Moves
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Reprising the franchise's surefire money-minting strategy, "Step Up Revolution" detonates five or six hyperkinetic dance extravaganzas in dazzling 3-D, timed to obliterate a traditionally saggy story line. In the "Step Up" mythology, dreamers, losers and misfits always pull themselves up by their bootstraps, hoofing their way out of mean streets to fame -- e.g., prizes, dance scholarships, Nike contracts. It's a show-biz fairy tale as old as the movies; what's surprising is how successfully this stale slice of the American Dream sells, in a marketplace supposedly dominated by the hip-kid demographic.
But, then, "Step Up" ticket buyers might just crack wise(ly): "It's all about the dancing, stupid!"
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Here, the story hook is the threat of a big development company wiping out a downscale, multi-ethnic Miami neighborhood. The sons and daughters of this poor but happy community -- bathed in warm gold-and-orange light and hot salsa -- want to save their home, while the CEO's kid yearns to dance her way out of her white-and-gray world, where practical-minded dad (Peter Gallagher, slumming) would like to freeze-frame her into a corporate cog. Loosed in various urban venues, the high-energy kinetic power of The Mob, a diverse community of flash dancers and performance artists from the hood, eventually dissolves all differences, creating one big happy family.
Once again, the leads are vapid whitebread types: Love interest Kathryn McCormick, alumna of "So You Think You Can Dance," turns a perfectly characterless face to the camera while baby-talking in rhythms just short of Valley Girl speak. And, snarky to say, this dancing queen's legs run to short and stumpy. (One yearns for the late, legendary Cyd Charisse, whose dance gams went on forever.) McCormick's moves are limited: Count how many times she falls into her signature pose, arching her body backward, defying how far a human spine can bow.
A Channing Tatum knockoff, Ryan Guzman looks like a high school hunk coached to make appropriate faces and sounds. But unlike some past "Step Up" leads, Guzman doesn't slide to the sidelines when hip-hop breaks out; he holds his own in the chorus line. But how galling that this big galoot and his best friend (another white dude who looks like a refugee from "Happy Days") are cast as the go-to guys for Mob leadership and dance ideas, charged with shepherding their crew of many colors into creativity.
In a less segregated franchise, charismatic ensemble member Stephen "Twitch" Boss would steal the show. What kind of passionate musical might this firecracker unleash? But we're in the only superficially multicultural land of "Step Up," where dancing is dirty but Romeo-and-Juliet romance is as shy and chaste as a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello hookup in "Beach Blanket Bingo."
OK, I've taken the obligatory shots at the movie's soft underbelly; let's get to the meat of the matter. Director Jon Chu's previous entry ("Step Up 3D") had hotter, more imaginative dance sequences -- who can forget that long-take, makeup duet down a New York street to the tune of "I Won't Dance"? -- but Emmy-nommed choreographer Travis Wall ("So You Think You Can Dance") stages some knockout performances. To stay au courant, specifically with the Occupy movement, The Mob's performance art morphs into protest art, little people dancing large against Big Business.
Pulse-pounding flash dances break out along a Miami street where even candy-colored muscle cars get in the game; in a museum where Mob members emerge from paintings and come to life out of sculpted forms; and in the lobby of a corporate high-rise, where the gang forms a frozen, then animated, wave of black-suited and fedora'd robots, "company men and women" mechanically attached to newspapers and Styrofoam coffee cups. It's all gorgeously stylized crumping and b-boying, along with parkour gymnastics and even a kind of bungee-dancing, as the ensemble dominates huge venues, employing everything in the immediate vicinity for stage and props.
Despite their infectious energy and some mind-blowing moves, there's a chaotic formlessness to even the best of these set pieces. Visualized in rapid-fire cuts, they're like eruptions, starting and stopping sans warning, as though director and choreographer either fear or don't believe in form -- or maybe just aren't capable of conceiving it. It should come as no surprise that "Step Up Revolution" is more about letting off steam than changing the world, so don't be looking for any footloose Che to be giving Miami back to the people in this fat-cat franchise.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.