If the words “dance movie” inspire chills down your spine, you’re not alone/pretty smart. Between Save the Last Dance, the story of a white ballerina who learns ‘urban moves,’ and Center Stage, which I’m guessing is about eating disorders, dance movies tend to follow a simple formula: stuck-up ballerina meets breakdancing bad boy, the two fight/struggle, then make-out/fall in love during their public performance of Hip-Hop Titanic. It’s a painful formula, but also an enduring one, as the success of the Step Up series – now on its fifth installment – has demonstrated. Step Up: All In isn’t really an exception to the trend (there’s a whoooole lot of whimsy). Plus, it’s stupid. But it’s self-referentially stupid in a way you can almost respect, a higher-level dumb movie that features zero logic, minimal commentary, and an impressive level of spectacle. While I wouldn’t exactly enjoin you to go see Step Up (please consider: anything else), it’s also not a complete embarrassment, a shining star in a polyurethane sky designed by Lisa Frank.
Disclosure: At this point, I should probably reveal that I’ve seen all the Step Up movies, sometimes multiple times, and in 2009 I purchased Step Up 2: The Streets for full price at my local CVS pharmacy. These are not good movies. Step Up 2 tells the story of soft kids at a private school who dance battle tough kids from Baltimore for control of the streets. Even though the students from private school technically have, you know, a future, we’re supposed to root for them against the (predominantly black) Baltimore kids – because dancing transcends class (nope), because hope is stronger than rage (double nope), and because the streets belong to everyone (Oh my god. Their. Words. Not. Mine.). Step Up 4: Miami Heat features a flash mob who use dance to fight gentrification, and the first Step Up includes Channing Tatum as a breakdancing janitor in a Hanes Her Way undershirt (actually, pretty good). Still, the level of dancing in these movies is consistently inventive throughout, and in a landscape where dance movies don’t really exist, I’m happy to attend a matinee. Solo.
Step Up: All In takes us to Los Angeles, where Sean (Ryan Guzman) is a down-and-out dancer desperately trying to make it big. Having recently moved from Miami, Sean discovers that Hollywood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (*jumps out window*), and moves into a storage closet with his only worldly possession: a 2014 Macbook air. One day, Sean comes up with a brilliant idea – he’ll google search dance competitions! – when he discovers a paid advertisement for The Vortex, a hot dance club in Las Vegas. Sean decides to follow-up on the ad (because paid google search results obviously = great opportunities), and reaches out to Moose, the star of ‘Step Up’ and a legitimately charming bub of a dancer. Moose helps him assemble a ragtag crew of dancers, including a Chinese breakdancer who speaks halting English (hilarious!), and together the group choreographs and films a ridiculously entertaining dance sequence in a science lab. The Vortex accepts their submission, and the crew heads out to the big competition in Las Vegas, because that’s where dreams really happen (Can you say ‘foreclosure crisis?’)
If you pay too much attention to the plot in Step Up, you’ll lose it, but that’s not what these movies are made for. The choreography in All In, while not exceptional, is persistently inventive. Dancers slide and glide across concrete floors and somersault their way through dancehall trampolines. The zombie breakdancers in the lab and in the final scene, are – to use the technical term – very cool, and you can’t help but root for Andie (Briana Evigan) as she literally flies across the competition floor. “Does everything have to end in a dance battle?” Moose asks, and it’s a nice moment of self-reflection in a movie that often seems to know – it’s dumb.
What Step Up: All In actually does well is let the dancers dance – a rarity in an action-based movie culture that features so many short cuts/CGI animation that you can’t actually watch the fighters fight. Spectacle is spectacle. It’s big, it’s flashy, and you should see it. And dancing is more than simple acrobatics – Director Trish Sie gives the dancers actual time to tell stories through their form. While the stories can be simplistic (“Science can be scary!” “Isn’t love great?”), they’re stories nonetheless. It’s a small victory in a ridiculous series of nonsensical movies that upon reflection, just shouldn’t exist.
Where Step Up really starts to fail is where it starts to think. I’m all for movies having a purpose, but not when that purpose is: “Art is more important than money!” and “Hope is all you need.” I’m also consistently horrified by a series where the opposing team is consistently made up of “hard knock” people of color. We root against them because we need them to lose more. The Step Up series is guided by Justin Bieber spirituality, adolescent truisms materialized through neatly constructed dance-offs. Words like “dream,” “hope” and “believe” resonate throughout All In, and while it seems cynical to discount them, it feels even more opportunistic to pretend they’re real.
At one point, All In even attempts to pull from The Hunger Games. Sean and LMNTRX (“Elementrix” – the name of the crew – don’t ask) discover that their reality show competition, orchestrated by a very Effie Trinket-esque producer, has actually been arranged in advance. They’re shocked and horrified (um, you found this through a paid google search result, buddy), but instead of pulling out, the crew decides to fight even harder. Hope is stronger than capitalism, art bigger than the dollar. Common sense should tell you what ultimately happens (hint hint: it’s sooooo good!), but conventional wisdom should remind you to look for something better. It exists.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org