Movie review by Greg Carlson
A thoroughly predictable and utterly generic teen dance movie, “Step Up” trots out a familiar and unremarkable set of moves. Creakily mounting the “unlikely partners” scenario that has fueled previous titles like “Dirty Dancing” and “The Cutting Edge,” “Step Up” doesn’t manage to improve on “Save the Last Dance,” with which it shares a writer. Young audience members probably won’t mind that “Step Up” often plays like a pale imitation of “Fame,” either, seeing as how a movie made in 1980 is ancient history. Choreographer turned director Anne Fletcher proves better at arranging numbers than she does at creating convincing drama.
Bland mannequin Channing Tatum, who was nearly as dull in “She’s the Man” earlier this year, plays moody bad boy Tyler Gage, an angry kid from the wrong side of the tracks who divides his time between arguing with his ill-tempered foster dad and stealing cars with his pals. Following a heavy-handed altercation with a violent thug that practically has the word foreshadowing emblazoned on it, Tyler breaks and enters the Maryland School for the Arts, netting himself a hefty community service sentence when he’s caught by a security guard. Mopping floors and emptying trash cans at the school gets old fast, so it’s a good thing a lead male dancer’s ankle injury coincides with Tyler’s arrival.
Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan), the uninjured half of the dance partnership, is desperate to continue working on her routine for the upcoming Senior Showcase, so it doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to figure out that Tyler will – ugh – “step up” and fill in for her hobbled collaborator. In fact, Tyler’s willingness to dance with Nora is merely the first of the film’s titular metaphors, as a parade of clichéd subplots provides life lessons involving personal growth and responsibility. By the time the credits roll, Tyler will have learned to “step up” in multiple ways.
“Step Up” introduces so many secondary storylines that the dancing seems to disappear for long stretches. Worse yet, despite the promise that Tyler’s fluid street style will inject some needed zest into Nora’s traditional routine, nothing much comes of the hip hop influence that first introduces us to the Tyler character. It is a de facto requirement that dance movies end with a splashy production number that shows off the skill of the nascent lovers, and “Step Up” does indeed have such a scene. What is surprising, however, is that so little time is used for dancing set-pieces leading up to the finale.
When the movie turns its attention to the class differences that conspire to keep Tyler and Nora apart, it seems to run out of gas. Virtually nothing is done to explain the bond between Tyler and his best friend Mac (Damaine Radcliff), who is quick to blame Nora for his buddy’s waning interest in hotwiring autos destined for the chop shop. Not everyone is skeptical of performing arts high schools. In one too-good-to-be-true moment, professional criminal Omar (Heavy D) – the proprietor of the chop shop – attests to the value of an arts education. “Step Up” is filled with similar head-scratching scenes and turnabouts, from distant parents who seem to change overnight to frosty administrators who can be instantly won over by some smooth turns on the dance floor.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/14/06.