There seems to be a fair amount of critical sniffiness about the Step Up series of modern dance masterpieces. A lot of the reviews I skim past on Rotten Tomatoes seem to think the acting is bad, or the whole enterprise is somehow fundamentally flawed, but yet I don’t see it. The quality of the acting may not be comparable to the stuff that wins awards, but comparing them would be a foolish undertaking. The acting is perfectly matched to the setting, to the genre and to the ambitions of the producers: the acting is perfect. What this latest instalment of the franchise does that’s new is that it brings back the leads from previous films to star together. Thus far, each film has had two (admittedly white) lead characters, a man and a woman, who over the course of the film come to respect and finally love one another through their shared passion for dance. So far, so generic, and it’s a formula slavishly followed here. Now two of the best of them return, somewhat like the filmic equivalent of one of those reality TV shows like Top Chef where periodically they do a season featuring previous season winners. So we have Ryan Guzman as Sean from the Miami-set Step Up: Revolution (2012) and Briana Evigan as Andie from Baltimore-set Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) — which incidentally are also the two strongest films from the franchise so far, in my opinion. Backing them is an ensemble featuring plenty of familiar faces to viewers of the series, including the adorable “Moose” (Adam Sevani) after his cameo in Revolution and larger role in Step Up 3D (2010), as well as his now-partner Camille (Alyson Stoner).
The previous film’s pretensions of connecting to current trends in media (YouTube and mobile phone filming) and the rise of protest movements are dialled down with this chapter, though with the character of Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko), there remains a cogent critique of the media circus and its manipulativeness in search of ratings and success. As this TV-host ringmaster whose Las Vegas dance competition brings the two leads together, Miko is acting on a completely different planet from most of the film, as if she saw Elizabeth Banks in The Hunger Games and considered her performance just too naturalistic and muted. It certainly makes the task of the leads that much more difficult, and though Evigan does (ahem) step it up, I wasn’t convinced by Guzman, who is given a rather overextended emo sequence towards the end where his character is put right by the magic wise words of the generic European parent-figures.
What the film does well — and I admit this is rather the obvious point — is the dance setpieces, starting from the opening credits sequence (who knew films still did those) with its parade of dance-hopefuls trying out to bored producers, through to the epic final battle, which is obviously enhanced through montage and doesn’t convince at all as a filmed live reality show (though perhaps this is just another subliminal tip of the hat to the manipulativeness of modern television). Along the way we get a sense of how pursuing a career in dance can be a draining and difficult experience (something that was also a theme in the third film), from Sean’s voiceover during the opening auditions, to the glimpse at the crappy low-end service industry jobs everyone needs to take in order to make ends meet. His crew from the Miami film, now relocated to Los Angeles, soon disperses at the lack of opportunities and work, leaving Sean alone to recruit a new crew. Yet so expendable are these day jobs that everyone he reaches out to quickly ditch them for the slender prospect of something in Las Vegas. It’s only Moose who seems to acknowledge any commitments beyond dancing, in one of the film’s more affecting sequences.
Sure, it may be no actual bona fide masterpiecce, but this fifth film in the series is one of its strongest yet. There’s a colourful visual palette to go along with the kinetic energy of the dance sequences, and underlying it all is a cheerful optimism in the power of movement to overcome doubt and worry. The plotting and structure may fit into a long line of predictable genre exercises (this series and the contemporaneous High School Musical films as examples), but everyone attacks the script and the setpieces with the energy of people doing it all for the first time, and I find that a winning combination.
Director Trish Sie; Writer John Swetnam; Cinematographer Brian Pearson; Starring Ryan Guzman, Briana Evigan, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Izabella Miko; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Vue Westfield [2D], London, Thursday 7 July 2014.