In Defense of the 'Step Up' Movies
The dance film series is secretly the most fun movie franchise out there. Here's why I'm all in on "Step Up."
You can keep your X-Men, your Spider-Men, your Transformer-Men. Every other summer, a Step Up movie will be released, and that movie will be my summer jam. I actively look forward to these movies, I watch all of the trailers when they're released online, and I know the names and archetypal qualities of the recurring characters. I have come to terms with the fact that the "Step Up" movies are my guilty pleasure and feel no guilt when discussing/praising them in front of other people, who usually can't decide between confusion and outright mockery.
I understand that the Step Up movies are widely derided as dance shlock. That's fine. I used to believe they were, too. The first Step Up, released in August 2006, was a forgettable Channing Tatum vehicle before Tatum was a recognizable name. He played a disadvantaged kid who ends up performing community service at an arts school and teaching those fussy ballet students a thing or two about street dancing; Step Up was a fish-out-of-water story that had been told by Save The Last Dance five years earlier.
Step Up was a hit in the U.S., but nowhere near a cultural phenomenon. Yet the film's $12 million budget and $114 million international gross made a follow-up inevitable. The spectacularly titled sequel, Step Up 2: The Streets, was originally supposed to head straight to video, like the You Got Served and Bring It On franchises before it, but Disney instead decided to quietly release Step Up 2: The Streets on a sleepy February weekend in 2008, just 18 months after the original Step Up was released, and the sequel grossed $150 million worldwide. A quick-to-produce, crazy-profitable franchise was born.
The key ingredients to a Step Up movie quickly became clear: something-to-prove hero, urban setting, exposed six-packs, Flo Rida music. These movies kept coming out… and I started liking them. The characters in Step Up 2: The Streets were more engaging, the soundtrack had multiple Missy Elliott songs, and the final dance sequence -- a crew battle for the underground competition 'The Streets' -- was jaw-dropping. I re-watched the original Step Up and started to enjoy the nuances of Tatum's stone-faced lead performance. And in 2010, Step Up 3-D was the most fun yet: lots of the best characters from The Streets were back, and although the plot was almost absurd in its implausibility, the dancing was gleefully arranged, from a single-shot "Singin' In The Rain" homage to a battle between crews improbably called the Pirates and the House of Samurai.
I have to stress the importance of silliness in the Step Up franchise. These movies are technically "dramas," and there are always moments two-thirds of the way through when the hero believes that, as hard as they have danced, their dancing didn't go hard enough. No one should ever take the plot of a Step Up movie seriously, though, because the franchise's creators (including long-running producer Adam Shankman and original director Jon M. Chu) certainly don't. In Step Up world, all of life's problems can be solved by a nice crew pulling off cool stunts. You can pull off expert choreography on top of cars, in science labs, in art galleries and in office buildings. And the tempo of the music is never, ever slow.
My favorite preposterous Step Up sequence comes in Step Up 3-D, when the fiercely beloved funnyman Moose (Adam Sevani) is wandering into a bathroom (watch here beginning at the 3:50 mark). Moose has just unwittingly embarrassed another crew with his dance moves on the streets of New York, and that villainous crew is about to get revenge by cornering the kid in an empty restroom. Instead of beating Moose up, though, the crew aggressively… dances at him. With speakers sewed into the evil leader's jacket! Luckily, Moose escapes, or else he might have taken a backflip to the face.
The unabashed wackiness of the Step Up series is crystallized in Step Up Revolution, the fourth installment in the franchise released in July 2012. Step Up Revolution is both the worst Step Up film and a perfect movie. The plot revolves around a dance crew called the Mob that specializes in flash mobs in Miami, and when a hotel mogul decides to upend a local neighborhood for profit, the dancers start using their talents for protest performances (get it? Revolution?).
The movie's finale features the Mob dancing their butts off, and succinctly convincing the hotel mogul to reconsider his heartless ways and cancel his real estate plans. And then the Mob gets a Nike deal! It's such ridiculous popcorn fare that you can't help but admire its outright stupidity. Meanwhile, the dancing is spectacular in its technical wonder -- So You Think You Can Dance has nothing on these eye-popping set pieces -- and ability to tie up loose plot points. Who knew pinpoint choreography could save a city?
Step Up: All In, out this Friday (Aug. 8), finally recognizes that the franchise should be treated like the Fast & Furious films -- the gang's all back, including Moose, Andie (Briana Evigan) from Step Up 2: The Streets, Sean (Ryan Guzman) from Step Up Revolution, and other familiar, multi-cultural dance-aholics. The plot is dazzlingly inessential, as the Mob from "Revolution" splinters and their leader recruits a new crew to compete in a Las Vegas competition. The bad guys are cartoonish, the dialogue is wildly clunky, the chemistry between the two leads is questionable… and yet, there are stylish dance moves stacked upon gasp-worthy dance moves, just like how the Fast films are strung together with insane driving stunts. The final dance sequence in Step Up: All In could not exist in our physical world, and that's okay, because you can't take your eyes off of it.
"Our lifestyle isn't that easy, but it's the one we chose," Sean, the All In protagonist, tells his crew at one point in the film. I could say the same thing about my pro-Step Up stance. I respect the franchise's ability to always entertain me and never present its plot as something we should worry about. It's unabashedly dumb fun that's actually FUN for anyone that appreciates dancing. Step Up movies are cost-effective and appeal to both genders, as Shankman pointed out in a recent interview. So they will keep coming. Maybe Tatum, who deserted the franchise after a cameo in Step Up 2: The Streets, will make his Vin Diesel-esque return to the series, someday. And, God-willing, the characters will keep finding crazier places to dance. Here's to hoping that Step Up: In Space comes out in 2016 -- I will be first in line at the ticket window.