I don’t care what credibility I lose here, but I adore the Step Up franchise and the recent fifth installment – Step Up All In – of what I would already call an inexplicably long series is one of the more charming entries. Yes, they’re simplistic films with elaborate dance sequences. I don’t see how that makes these films any less amusing than similarly minded braindead action films where people get mowed down wholesale with semiautomatic machine guns. I don’t see how these films are also any different from the work that beloved cinematic musical pioneer and choreographer Busby Berkeley was doing in the 1930s. The Step Up films are ridiculous in the same way as the Fast and the Furious franchise, especially now that the films have officially achieved a crazy sense of continuity even among changes of cast member. They’re also doing something classical that hasn’t been done for approximately 70 years. These are flashy joy delivery devices geared towards those who simply want to be dazzled by a show and have a good time.
It sounds easy. Take a threadbare plot, some characters that don’t require the trained professional dancers to work too hard, and then just unleash them in 3D in set piece after set piece. I’m not saying this is great cinema on the level of Fassbinder, Godard, or even Spielberg. I am saying, though, that there’s definitely something inherently cinematic about them. The dedication and craftsmanship that goes into these routines is nothing short of astounding. If you stop to think about how every number has to be intricately detailed to the most minute degrees of precision, you can’t help but admire the results.
Sure, there’s a story. If you care to know what it is, here you go:
It all takes place six months after the end of the previous installment. Internet sensations The Mob went on to do a commercial for Nike, they moved to Los Angeles from Miami, and they haven’t landed a gig since. Frustrated, Sean (Ryan Guzman) now finds himself alone (literally since his girlfriend from the last film apparently ditched him in the past six months) when his crew, now led by his best friend Eddy (Misha Gabriel Hamilton), ditches him to go home and regroup. Hungry for success, Sean starts up a new crew with franchise favourite Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and the lead of Step Up 2: The Streets, Andie (Briana Evigan), to enter into a VH-1 reality show dance competition to compete for a three year contract at a Las Vegas casino.
Choreographer and first time feature director Trish Sie doesn’t stray too far from the path already set out by her predecessors, but she clearly knows how to shoot and stage a dance sequences. The script from John Swetnam (who funnily enough also wrote this weekend’s Into the Storm) knows it doesn’t have to stretch very far to work. It’s the kind of film where mere minutes into the proceedings Shawn is doing battle with a rival crew led by the nefarious Jasper (Stephen Jones, leading what essentially amounts to the dance equivalent of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band) in a Method Man vs. N.E.R.D. throwdown. Step Up All In knows no one came here for the nuance. They came for the dancing.
To a certain degree, the filmmakers also know that people come for at least a basic level of emotional attachment. The characters themselves are archetypes, sure, but at least they’re either quirky or relatable enough to make people want to follow them around. Sean is trying to overcome his perfectionist tendencies. Andie fears risking another career ending injury. Moose has left his lucrative job as an engineer (!!!) to dance again to the potential alienation of his long term girlfriend. There’s a dance instructor that’s essentially Fandango from the WWE. There’s a way cuter than expected romance between two human robot dancers who never say anything. Look at me droning on about character in this film like you even remotely care what I’m saying.
At least in terms of acting and writing, there’s a pretty darn good villain at the centre of it all outside of Shawn having to battle not only Jasper’s sorry ass, but his former crew for the title of “best potential Vegas showcase act.” The real villain of the piece is the delightfully batshit svengalli of the reality show, pop singer Alexxa Brave, played with deliciously perfect scenery chewing zeal by Izabella Miko. Part Miley Cyrus, part Lana Del Ray, and part Elizabeth Banks from The Hunger Games, her character is reminiscent of a modern updating of a role that Parker Posey played in the underrated Josie and the Pussycats. She’s an outwardly cheerful goof with a dark underbelly that insists she gets everything she asks for. Every line that comes out of her mouth is a purposeful howler designed to underline the film’s only major subversive point that all reality shows are rigged before they even start regardless of “audience participation.” She’s wonderful and I guess if you see these movies for the acting, she’s the highlight.
Of course the movie is going to stop every few minutes to dance the audience’s cares away, or else what did everyone show up to work for? There’s a mad scientist routine, a hanging around in Vegas montage, a duet on a tilt-a-whirl set to Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step,” and a steampunk inspired finale that would make Guillermo Del Toro proud. Granted, none of these acts top the literal street dancing of the previous entry, but that doesn’t mean it’s less of a kick to see them unfold.
I know I’m probably not going to win any new converts to this franchise, but I’m glad the producers keep making them. They haven’t let me down yet and they deliver what they promise. I have a blast and I can see their appeal. These are the kinds of films that need no greater defense than that.