It's been 19 years since adolescent girls around the world swooned at the sight of a musclebound Patrick Swayze lifting the lissome Jennifer Grey over his head before letting her plunge into a mosquito-infested pond in the Catskills.
Happily for 13-year-old girls everywhere, "Step Up" has arrived, breathing somewhat stale air into an age-old story: Girl from the right side of the tracks meets boy from wrong side, and a love of risque dance steps and tight clothing brings them together.
While predictability and occasionally wooden dialogue keep this from being a truly good movie, it's certainly entertaining enough to please its intended audience, and its wide-eyed belief in redemption through hard work is refreshingly optimistic.
Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum, who last appeared in "She's the Man") is a low-level hooligan, living with unscrupulous foster parents, stealing cars with his best friend, Mac (Damaine Radcliff), and committing the occasional act of vandalism. It's that last talent that gets him 200 hours of community service at the Maryland School of the Arts (Baltimore's answer to the school in "Fame"), where he's swept along a hallway that resembles a Renaissance Faire (wandering violinists playing Pachelbel's Canon, small groups of students harmonizing for no apparent reason). He quickly homes in on Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan), a classically trained dancer and Type-A personality who is anxiously perfecting her senior performance, which, we're reminded incessantly, is Very Important and will make or break her career.
Under the stern gaze of the school's humorless principal, Director Gordon (Rachel Griffiths, acting as if she's been hit in the back of the head with a frying pan and then pushed in front of the camera), Tyler falls under Nora's spell, seduced by her super sassy dance moves and the ineffable allure of trading in his baggy jeans for a nice pair of tights.
In the background, issues of class and race are raised, then more or less dropped. Beyond its central tenet (work hard and don't give up), this movie doesn't do much philosophizing. Every character represents a kind of cliche: Tyler is the disillusioned kid who has issues with authority, Mac is the kid being raised by a harried and overworked single mom, Nora is the coddled but misunderstood product of her mother's middle-class expectations. The good news is that no one is exempt from the ravages of fate. It's just that people with more money can wear cuter outfits.
Tatum and Dewan have a fine chemistry; Dewan seems to be a pretty good dancer and acquits herself respectably during the scenes that require "acting." Tatum, on the other hand, whose strongest asset appears to be his chiseled physique, doesn't seem to be acting so much as regurgitating, and he can be very difficult to understand.
"Step Up" could be called "Dirty Dancing Without the Pesky Morality Lesson," or "Footloose Without the Uptight Minister." Even "Flashdance Without the Welding Mask" works pretty well. From the over-the-head lift that convinces Nora that Tyler might have the goods to be her dance partner to the dance scenes along Baltimore's gritty, industrial waterfront, it's hard to escape the nagging feeling that we've seen all this before, albeit arranged slightly differently. It's no accident that the credits for the movie are a Who's Who of dance movie alumni: Director Anne Fletcher choreographed "Bring It On," screenwriter Duane Adler penned "Save the Last Dance" and the movie was photographed by Michael Seresin, who shot "Fame."
Of course there's an upside to such a convergence: If you pool that much experience in one production, you're almost guaranteed a movie that's slick enough to overcome its own shortcomings and deliver a reasonably satisfying package. In that regard, "Step Up" doesn't disappoint.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence and innuendo
A Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures release. Director Anne Fletcher. Screenplay by Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg. Producers Patrick Wachsberger, Erik Feig, Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot. Director of photography Michael Seresin. Editor Nancy Richardson.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In general release.