Director: Scott Speer
Screenwriter: Amanda Brody
Length: 1 hour 39 minutes
Synopsis: In Miami, a group of dancers called “The Mob” stages flash-mobs around the city and posts videos of the performances on YouTube in the hopes of winning an online contest. By day, the Mob’s leaders Sean (Guzman) and Eddy (Gabriel) wait tables at a luxury resort. One day after work, at the resort’s beach club, Sean meets Emily (McCormick) and an attraction forms as they dance together. However, their romance is complicated when Sean discovers that Emily’s father, Bill Anderson (Gallagher), is the owner of the resort. Making matters worse, Bill plans to raze the neighborhood where Sean and Eddy grew up to build another hotel. With homes threatened, Emily joins the Mob as they use their performances to stop the development.
Analysis: With each edition, the dancing in the Step Up franchise has become more complex, varied and spectacular. Though each film has had diminishing financial returns (at least domestically, Step Up 3D pulled in the highest international gross of the franchise at over $116 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com) the budget has seemed to swell. While Step Up was a fairly intimate love story that blossomed through dance, Step Up Revolution is an ensemble dance party with a little romance and social activism sprinkled in to tie it all together. Though the romance still directs all the action, what makes the film more enjoyable than its predecessors is the particularly stellar dancing and detailed production design surrounding it. So although this installment may be a bit vapid, it may also be the best of the series.
Arguably, each film in the Step Up franchise has reworked the basic narrative of 1987’s Dirty Dancing. There is the same parental disapproval, the same “opposites attract” story with one character growing up privileged and the other growing up poor in a close-knit community, and the narrative even uses betrayal as the falling action and dancing as the resolution. Yet what makes Dirty Dancing memorable is not the story, but the chemistry between its leads. The Step Up films have struggled to capture that same chemistry, with each pair of leads more beautiful and more limited in acting ability than the last. However, though Revolution is the first film for both leads, they may be the first couple since the original Step Up’s Jenna Dewan and Channing Tatum (who later married) to achieve a believable onscreen chemistry. Guzman began his career as a mixed martial artist and then became an Abercrombie and Fitch model, a resume that oddly makes him perfectly suited to the role since the former job endowed him the physique to become a capable dancer despite no previous training and the latter taught him to brood sexily. McCormick is a professional dancer who reveals just how well being a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance trained her to perform for a camera by her ability to command attention with a single, devastating sway of her hips. When the couple meets-cute in the hotel bar, their dancing is both playful and smoldering. And unlike the equivalent sequence in Step Up 3D, the moment feels spontaneous rather than meticulously choreographed. That same chemistry carries throughout and distracts from how toothless and formulaic the narrative really is.
However, the narrative really isn’t the point of the Step Up films. Many past musicals – Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Viva Las Vegas, even Tommy – were more concerned with dance and spectacle than giving a complex or unique narrative. In many of these films, the plot is a way for the musical numbers to be conceivably (if not always smoothly) integrated into the film. In the 1951 Best Picture-winning film An American in Paris, Gene Kelly’s character is an artist who falls in love with his friend’s fiancée. Rather than end the film with a scene of dialogue that resolves the love triangle, the film ends with a wordless 16-minute ballet in which Kelly’s character dreams of himself and Leslie Caron’s character frolicking through an impressionist, Technicolor Paris. When the ballet ends, a shot of Caron running up a staircase and jubilantly embracing Kelly is all the resolution the love story needs. The audience is expected to understand what’s happened without being walked through the plot points. Yet the narrative’s weaknesses don’t hinder the enjoyment of that film because the films are really about the musical numbers.
The case is much the same with Revolution. Nothing that happens narratively is unexpected or particularly challenging, despite the apparent air of social activism. Yet it serves its function by justifying the dance numbers, which have an air of joy and spectacle reminiscent of the numbers from the great MGM musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s. While the first films operated on a smaller scale, the latest installment forgoes believability (how these minimum-wage workers afford all these classic cars and costumes, I’ll never know) in service of a more extravagant, vibrant and jubilant viewing experience than the series has ever produced before. In Revolution’s most memorable sequence, Sean convinces the Mob to perform in a fine art museum so he can woo Emily. As they appreciate the paintings and sculptures, the art seems to come alive as dancers camouflaged to blend in with the pieces begin to move and bring out an even greater sense of beauty and creativity in the exhibits. The scene is made even more enchanting by the 3D technology so that when the museum director stops the security guards from accosting the dancers, the beat seems less of a cute plot contrivance and more of a genuine expression of appreciation.
Step Up Revolution will rightfully never win an Oscar. It’s story is derivative, and rendered almost meaningless by the ending, but the film is enjoyable because it’s the type of movie that hasn’t forgotten that film is first and foremost a visual medium. There is color and movement and an attractive couple who can dance up a storm. Would the film be more satisfying and complete with a narrative and acting equally as complex as its dance numbers? Absolutely. But performers like Gene Kelly, who could take an underwritten character and make it seem full and real, are not easy to find. Step Up Revolution is at the very least a delightful summer confection. So why focus on the negative when the positives are so diverting?