Review: Shallow characters, deep cinematography makes ‘Step Up 3-D’ a slick, satisfying experience

By Todd Gilchrist Step Up 3-D has exactly as much plot as it needs, given that it’s really the best-choreographed music video that Hype Williams never made. Filmmaker Jon Chu, who previously made Step Up 2: The Streets and is currently helming one of the most underrated web series on the internet, The LXD, has really mastered the art of directing captivating dance sequences, but he still hasn’t found an emotional foundation equal to his films’ evolving technical virtuosity. But given that an engaging story is only vaguely important in the confines of a world that brings together breakdancing, parkour, acrobatics, lasers, and spectacularly ugly track jackets, Step Up 3-D suffers from no shortcomings important enough to prevent it from being one of the most colorful, effervescent and entertaining films of the summer.

Rick Malambri, who looks like the illegitimate lovechild of Ashton Kutcher and Brian Austin Green, plays Luke, the paterfamilias of a dance troupe known as The Pirates. Residing in an impossibly overdesigned New York loft above an equally garish dance club, Luke recruits young dancers around town, including the promising young Moose (Adam Sevani), while shooting an amateur documentary about his friends. But when he crosses paths with Natalie (Sharni Vinson), a dancer whose independence and talent is more than a match for his own, he starts to believe that the Pirates can win the year’s biggest tournament, even as the bank, and a formidable friend-turned-opponent, Julien (the aptly-named Joe Slaughter), threaten to take away his home, his crew, and everything else that matters to him.

That’s right: not only is there a competition, but it’s one where the prize money is the only thing that can save the protagonist from losing his home. Oh, and the hero has a privileged rich-boy adversary hell-bent on destroying everything that means anything to him. But, honestly – does any of that cliché-laden conflict matter? No. The reason people are watching the film is to see some spectacular dancing, and they will have long since been satisfied by the time they learn whether Luke and the Pirates triumph over their enemies or end up on the streets.

That said, as it currently exists, the script by Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, since the film introduces several promising story threads that might have given it more gravitas. For example, what happens to the stone-faced guy Moose accidentally serves in the opening scene? If that was meant to be a rivalry that ran through the entire film, I missed it. Not to mention the fact that Luke is pretty demanding of Moose throughout the whole movie, forcing him to miss classes and coordinate his school schedule around rehearsals for which, to my knowledge, he wasn’t going to be paid. Surely Luke could have made one gesture or spoken to a iron-fisted professor on Moose’s behalf? Or choreographed an apology dance with the Pirates to make up for Moose’s absenteeism with his best girl friend Camille (Alyson Stoner)?

Admittedly, however, Moose’s one-take duet with Camille is probably the highlight of the film, not the least of which because it never forgets the characters are in the real world (when Moose appropriates a fedora from a passerby, the guy goes, “give me back my hat!”) and yet achieves a dizzyingly romantic, epic scale in just a matter of a few minutes. But the dance sequences as a whole are so impeccably conceived and perfectly executed that there’s little room and even less reason to devote energy to worrying about plot holes or lingering story strands. Using dancers from the previous film, The LXD, and anywhere else he can find them, Chu assembles a real variety of different styles and then mixes and matches them to create distinctive, memorable numbers that don’t repeat themselves and are genuinely thrilling in their physicality and balleticism.

In terms of the 3-D, Chu comes up with some equally inventive ways to exploit the audience’s depth perception, first launching balloons and bubbles at the audience and then moving on to actual dancers. But his compositions are fluid and continuous and don’t futz around with a lot of quick cutting, which I think is integral to the success of dance sequences in general: if it looks like the choreography is being done in the editing room rather than at the location where it was performed, the sequence won’t work.

Thanks to the ubiquitousness of shows like So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Crew and others, audiences with an appreciation for dance and dance movies are far too savvy to buy into something where the lead sucked and the director shot around their lack of coordination, and the fact that Chu leaves the camera above or in front of the dancers as they perform each step not only confirms the talent of the folks on screen but shows the work that went into constructing each sequence as a whole. Nevertheless, it still looks like a late-‘90s music video by Hype Williams, albeit sans fisheye lens, every time the camera tracks forwards and back as the dancers throw their arms out at the audience Diddy-style. (Further, the movie more or less concedes the point by using Busta Rhymes’ vintage Williams-era track “Tear Da Roof Off” in one scene.)

In fact, Chu’s latest offers every single thing that I could have imagined, expected or wanted from a 3-D sequel in a successful dance-movie franchise: impromptu dance numbers using any and all objects within reach; silly posturing between dance groups who get offended when their opponents grab their crotches; furtive romances between people who take a damn long time to realize they’re perfect for each other; costumes that light up and shoot lasers as if recreating some sort of dance orgy from Tron; pint-sized pre-teen dancers with more talent and attitude than their older competitors; wall-to-wall hip-hop beats that make the audience want to jump up out of their seats and join the dancers on screen; and Madd Chad, whose mind-blowing ability to do the robot with painstaking accuracy has made him a legend in the dance community and my personal idol.

Having seen and thoroughly enjoyed Step Up 3-D, I didn’t find it to be a problem that there’s not a shred of originality in the plot since each of the dance sequences, the film’s raison d’etre, are as unique and imaginative as any storytelling structure or form any filmmaker’s attempted this year. Should there be a different set of criteria for films based on their visceral appeal – the fluidity of their imagery, the poetry of the actors’ physical coordination and dexterity, or even just the fun of watching them – even if the rest of their content resists conventional definitions of quality? Maybe, maybe not. But Step Up 3-D isn’t just irresistible, it’s infectious, and it’s a sweet, exuberant surrender to give yourself over to Chu and company’s choreographic achievements, whether or not it’s fair to forgive their cinematic transgressions.


Photos courtesy of Summit Entertainment


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  • August 3, 2010 | Permalink |

    Another backwater limited storyline that once again make going to the movies in august a bad idea. When will the movie makers undertand that august is still summer and people want one last blast before the fall comes around ? Teen girls with the attention span of a goldfish will be interested in this…The rest of us have to suffer. Time for step up to step down.

  • August 4, 2010 | Permalink |

    Good review of the movie Todd, however, I think Alyson Stoner should have gotten the lead part since she is such an excellent dancer and was the sister of Channing Tatum in the first Step Up.

    After the first movie without Channing and Jenna, I wasn’t interested in watching. Doesn’t the plot count for anything with these directors? There is nothing attached to the first one anymore except Alyson’s character.

  • September 12, 2010 | Permalink |

    love rap stup up 3 robot

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