Folks who flock to dance movies like "Take the Lead" and "Save the Last Dance" and "You Got Served" and "Honey" probably aren't big fans of originality. All they want is a soundtrack full of thudding base, an assortment of glistening hard-bodies, a little twitchy choreography and a semi-romantic formulaic script. Go in with no expectations higher than those and you probably won't be worried about the overall ludicrousness of the entire film. I could say that "Step Up" is an awful movie -- and it probably is, on a purely technical level -- but let's just say instead that it's not a movie I have any use for.
The pieces are all familiar. Muscular street-trained dancer (Channing Tatum) from the wrong side of the tracks? Check. Lithe, classically trained dancer (Jenna Dewan), whose absence of father figure makers her attraction to this new bad boy seem a little creepy? Check. Unfortunate dancing partner accident that brings our heroes together? Check. Hood friends convinced that our hero has gone soft? Check. Various R&B and hip-hop stars floating on the periphery to give the movie a little street cred? Check. Unfortunate tragedy that causes several major characters to, um, step up? Check. Oh yeah. It's all there.
But the question with movies like this isn't really if the drama breaks new ground. It's can the two leads dance and do they look good together?
There's no denying that Dewan and Tatum are both athletic and fairly graceful onscreen. She looks fantastic in a leotard and he looks burly in a wife-beater, so that's nearly enough. Tatum has ample agility, but he's obviously untrained and no matter how much his character gets schooled on more formal dancing, he never meshes in any of the dance numbers. The stars blend decently when they're flailing their limbs, but when they're faced with the horribly earnest dialogue written by Duane Adler ("Save the Last Dance") and Melissa Rosenberg ("The O.C.") neither stands out -- Tatum's mumbling eats most of his words and Dewan's wide-eyed emoting will eventually be well-suited to a daytime soap. Perhaps it's that difference in acting style that renders Tatum and Dewan chemistry-free when they lack for musical accompaniment. It's also unavoidable that both leads were born in 1980 and they very much look like adults wandering around the schoolyard.
But again, first-time director (and veteran choreographer) Anne Fletcher keeps the beats pumping and the stars casually dressed. Plus, she spends as much time as possible in medium shots so that audiences can be assured that if they're enjoying the dancing -- stylistically somewhere between street and ballet without declaring an actual distinctive personality -- that's being done by the actors themselves, rather than "Flashdance"-style stunt feet.
There's a little bit of political and social commentary on the side. Tatum's character is a foster child and his relationship with his obviously unrelated foster sister (Alyson) is one of the movie's only points of effect sentiment. The movie also benefits from the decision to shoot on location in Baltimore, which gives the outside scenes a dash of grit. That edge could have been increased by casting some of the talented young stars of "The Wire." The only veteran of that superior HBO Baltimore-set drama to appear in "Step Up" is Deirdre Lovejoy, who only provides evidence of the professionally ameliorating effects of David Simon's writing.
Nobody is expecting the same level of urban realism for a cheesy dance movie as for HBO's finest series. And I understand that I'm just not part of the target audience for "Step Up." I only wish I'd spent less time in the theater giggling at the ridiculousness of the whole endeavor.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun