I’ll preface this review the same way I’ve prefaced them since Charming Potato danced his way to stardom in the original Step Up: I’m a lame white guy from Arkansas who now lives in Portland, and not even the cool Portland. The “other” Portland. I spend most of my time writing about movies and television, or watching movies and television, and if it’s possible, I’m even more uncool than when the last Step Up movie came out. I drive a minivan now. Point being: My exposure to dance and other performance arts is largely limited to movie screens and these urban dance flicks like Step Up. It’s all very foreign to me, and watching the dance sequences, I often feel like a four-year-old watching his first cartoon: Wide-eyed, mesmerized, and blown away.
The miracle about these Step Up films is that, though neither the storylines nor the acting has improved (in fact, they have devolved considerably since Charming Potato and his wife, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who seem positively Shakespearean in comparison to the actors in the subsequent installments), the dance sequences have only gotten better. Step Up Revolution leaps to an entirely new stratosphere; it’s more than just a mixture of urban and classical dance. Step Up Revolution employes flash mobs, ballet, special effects, fine art, performance art, street art, and even parkour. The final 15-minute dance sequence in Step Up Revolution, which employs a good 150 dancers at least, is easily the most eye-popping, complicated, and dazzling dance sequence ever put to film, a rousing visceral combination of everything we’ve seen before, all in three dimensions. While I typically have no love for 3D, it does add a lot during a dance sequence that includes trampoline jumping and a troupe of hoo-ra men executing a sideways routine with bungee cords.
It’s such a shame, but almost beside the point, that the plot itself is inert and hopeless. Set in Miami, it centers on The Mob, a flash-mob group trying to win a YouTube contest for $100,000 by being the first to accrue 10 million views. The focal point is Sean (Ryan Guzman), co-founder of The Mob who falls in love with a classical dancer, Emily (Kathryn McCormick, a “So You Think You Can Dance” alum), who is pursuing a career in dance despite her father’s (Peter “Eyebrows” Gallagher) protestations. Her father is also a developer who has designs on tearing down Sean’s neighborhood to build a luxury resort, and Sean — with Emily’s assistance — begins to use The Mob to work against the destruction of his neighborhood.
In other words, there’s just enough plot development to provide an excuse for the flash mobs, which begin as disruptive performance art, morph into hypnotizing protest art, and culminate in a energetic, frenetic crowd-pleasing performance piece designed to win over the masses. That the storyline falls almost illogically into place, that the dialogue is laughable, and that the decisions made by the characters are beyond stupid doesn’t even matter: It’s about the dance sequences, and they are a thrilling, mind-blowing marvel.
What I don’t really understand is why a talented musical director like Rob Marshall, or a daring experimental filmmaker, like Steven Soderbergh, hasn’t attempted to meld these breathtaking extended dance sequences with great storytelling. Magic Mike certainly was a step in that direction, but given the popularity of “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” one would imagine that the combination of potent storytelling and slick, elaborate choreography would be lethal at the box office. Until someone figures that out, however, I can continue to tolerate the simple, poorly acted Disneyfied screenplays of the Step Up films because, in between the plot points, there’s a lot of talent and well-engineered movement to be amazed by.