Hip-hop and street dance movies are no different than your average generic sports drama, except with a love story interspersed into them. There are some struggling, yet immensely talented sympathetic protagonists. Then there is a competition that the protagonists want to win, as unlikely as it seems at first. There are inevitable setbacks and doubts, but in the end the competition is won (or, in the more daring of these films, the protagonists are placed second, yet are still very happy about themselves and their achievements) and all is good. This is precisely the formula that the vast majority of recent dance-themed movies follow, from Stomp the Yard over Take the Lead all the way to the British counterpart, the Streetdance franchise. Undeniably the most popular representative of this particular kind of films is the everlasting Step Up franchise. When the first film came out in the summer of 2006 und jump-started Channing Tatum’s movie career (damn, he went far since then), no one knew that it’d spawn the successful dance movies franchise of all time. Since then the fans of elaborate dance routines have been treated a sequel every other year. So here we are, six years after the original, relishing the arrival of the fourth movie, Step Up Revolution. Or are we?
Frankly by this point, reviews will likely do little in convincing anyone who has never been big into this franchise or dance movies in general, to check out its fourth offering. They won’t deter the film’s specific target audiences from seeing it either. However, while the movie will certainly live up to the expectations of the latter group, the former might find themselves in for a little surprise with the film. It’s really not that bad. Of course if someone’s generally averse to high concept dance routines and rolls their eyes at every dance film/romance cliché presented (and don’t get me wrong, they are a plenty), then this movie won’t change their minds either. However those walking into the film with an open mind and no expectations will be offered breezy, vibrant summer fun worth the admission fee.
The heads behind the Step Up franchise have realized that in order for people to keep coming these movies need three things. First of all, appealing leads that are easy on the eye. Second, they should not deviate much from the usual routine of dance movies and offer enough stunning dance sequences. Third, at the same time, each movie needs to introduce a new element that will, even if ever so slightly, distinguish the film from its predecessors. The second film upped the ante by introducing the audiences to an entire dance crew instead of just a dancing couple in a competition. The third film took the dance routines into the third dimension (Step Up Revolution followed suit). In a somewhat surprising move, Step Up Revolution breaks the formula mentioned earlier. There is no big competition in the film and there are no rivaling dance crews. Instead the film’s major evil is capitalism (clearly the franchise is going with the current flow). That part is ironic given the film’s pay-off at the end. Sean (Ryan Guzman) works a low-end job at a posh Miami Beach hotel with his life seemingly heading nowhere. More importantly, however, Sean is the leader of the innovative and slightly controversial dance crew The Mob that are basically flash mobbers and highly skilled dancers (and street artists and technicians and DJs…). Sean’s and his best buddy Eddy’s (Misha Gabriel) biggest dream is for their videos to reach 10 million views on YouTube and thus secure a $100,000 prize (okay, there is an element of competition there). However things get more complicated when Sean falls for Emily (“So You Think You Can Dance” alum Kathryn McCormick): Emily is equally skilled in dancing (albeit traditional dance is more her kind of thing), but she comes with a baggage. Her father (Peter Gallagher) is not just the owner of the hotel that Sean works at; he also fired Eddy for coming too late. On top of that, this real estate mogul plans to redevelop the cultural hotspot that is also the neighborhood where The Mob’s members live and spend their spare time in. Now instead of just dancing for the prize money, The Mob is trying to make a statement against the redevelopment via flash mobs during business meetings or at fancy restaurants. To bring some fresh blood into the crew, Sean takes Emily on board, though he withholds the truth about Emily’s father to friends. A decision that is bound to have consequences.
As anyone should know, this is not the kind of a movie that you see for a good story. However, I have to give it props for trying. Sure, this isn’t Ken Loach, but the socially conscious message is at least a refreshing change from the usual “we-need-to-beat-our-impossibly-good-rivals-at-this-competition” set-up. It is unfortunate that even though Sean and his friends argue that there’s a need to protect their culturally diverse neighborhood, there is little of this diversity seen on screen. Especially if you consider the importance of Cuban immigrants to Miami shaping the city into what it is now. The argument heard in the film is that the neighborhood is an essential part of the city and a lot of cultural heritage would be lost destroying it. What they are actually trying to say is: “We live here, so leave us alone”.
However, as simple as this plot may be, the efforts in reaching their goal are stunning. By that I mean the dance sequences of course. From the film’s opening sequence which sees Ocean Drive occupied by The Mob dancing on cars and supported by bouncing lowriders, the routines just continue to improve on the preceding ones. Whenever you think the filmmakers would be hard-pressed to top the previous one, you’ll be proven wrong. Particularly stunning is the sequence in which The Mob makes installations at a contemporary art gallery come to life. There are a lot of rightful discussions among movie fans, industry people and general moviegoers about the usefulness and the necessity of 3D in movies. It seems nowadays, as if every other major movie is being released in 3D, whether shot in the format or (more often) converted into it in post-production. This year alone there have been several 3D movies that certainly weren’t worth the premium fee (I’m looking at you, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and John Carter). It’s no surprise that the revenue share for 3D screens is stagnating at best. However, if there is one genre that has truly harnessed the benefits of 3D, it’d be the dance movies. The preceding Step Up has already been lauded for its use of 3D and this year’s Streetdance 2 has proven the effectiveness of the format in this subgenre, but Step Up Revolution is another notch above these. The dance routines are an immersive experience thanks to 3D. There isn’t even much flying towards the viewer, it is just the sense of depth that imbues the already very creative routines with additional energy. It helps that the movie’s setting is the incredibly looking Miami in summertime.
Aside from the very impressive dancing, it is mostly business as usual. The love story is fine with McCormick and Guzman conjuring just enough chemistry (particularly thanks to their dancing). Given the fact that Guzman is a MMA fighter and McCormick’s previous role descriptions on IMDB read “Sexy Girl 1” and “Audience Member 1”, both are not just incredibly photogenic, but also surprisingly natural performers. Peter Gallagher is a somewhat sympathetic antagonist of the piece is the only other notable member of the cast. He true stars here are the dancing, 3D and the city. Everything else just serves to showcase them. In the end, it is an utterly forgettable film, but it is sure as hell fun to watch and might find one or two members of the audience tapping their feet to the rhythm of the dance.