The Safety Dance
Step Up / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | August 13, 2006 | Comments ()
These things really are about expectation. When I received my Step Up assignment for this week, I mentally prepared myself to leave a theater full of pre-teen girls so incensed that I’d unholster some automatic weapon and rain death death revolution on everyone within 50 yards. And who would blame me? Step Up is a dance movie, after all, titled with a youthfully irritating catch-phrase, directed by a dance choreographer, and starring no one — not a blessed soul (save perhaps Heavy D).
But instead of homicidal panic, I actually left my viewing of Step Up with a vague sense of boredom and annoyance, not really loathing it as much as I expected. It’s a boring and bland movie, but an entirely inoffensive one, a far cry from such twaddle that dance enthusiasts have delivered in the past, and it’s done with a fair amount of competency.
Step Up begins with Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum), a violently unappealing mongoloid who might be the bastard progeniture of Josh Hartnett and a Marine drill instructor. Tyler and his two buddies go around Baltimore stealing cars, playing basketball, partying and breakdancing. You see, these kids are from the wrong side of the tracks. One evening of mischief at the Maryland School of Arts lands Tyler with community service — cleaning up the place in his off-hours. There, Tyler meets Nora (Jenna Dewan), a dance student at the school. Nora is dating a guy who would probably be rejected from Westlife for being “too gay,” but she takes a shine to Tyler and, when she loses her male lead to injury, asks him to fill in with his breakdancing elan. The two start to hit it off; bing, bang, boring.
Anne Fletcher, who has danced in and choreographed scores of films in the last several years, is certainly in her element with that aspect of the movie. The most energetic scenes, of course, come from the poetic movements of the leads; the rest is mild character-building plot that is predictable and humdrum. I highly doubt that most of the interest in this film would be for anything other than the dance sequences, but it’s still off-putting to watch the older-than-Jesus arcs and homilies of Step Up. Everyone in the movie has a cookie-cutter role to play that serves no higher purpose than to express what was obvious to the audience before setting foot in the theater.
But if you came for the dancing and music, you get both in spades. Given that the players are all relatively unknown, they do adequate jobs of acting, save Tatum, who is a lifeless potato spud in the lead role. Still, one gets used to his inanity and accepts it by story’s finish. In the end, Step Up is probably no better or worse than its much glossier cousin, Take the Lead, though it has no strong anchor of personality like Antonio Banderas. Neither film is horrible; neither is exceptional in any way. For those of us who have only a passing interest in the dancing crafts, it’s going to take a lot more than the tired characters and dichotomies of films like this to really get us to appreciate the art form. Step Up seems to assume that talent and ability are natural and that one must simply make the mental decision to exploit them. I’d be more interested (and empathetic) toward characters who have to gain this talent, or at least face a more interesting obstacle than those we see in films like this. But until someone makes me a movie about a blind paraplegic who learns to samba, I’ll have to assume Step Up and its ilk are representative.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
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