THE Screened Review by Matthew Marko
Another entertaining escape into the world of loud music and elaborate dance routines, Step Up Revolution stumbles more through failing to live up to its presumptions of social relevance than any technical faults, settling for being simply vapid and fun.
At this point I feel confident calling myself a fan of the Step Up franchise. The prior three films have been escalating in greatness, starting as a simply-okay dance movie franchise and becoming something really special. They’re funny, well-shot, entertaining dance musicals with tacked on plots and great showcases the likes of which movies haven’t seen since the big studio musical days of Astaire and Rogers, and I’m okay with the fact that often the stories are hackneyed and the actors are better dancers than speakers. I want that, since that’s what I’m coming to see.
Step Up Revolution is, then, really mostly just another one of those. The setting has changed to a sun-drenched, candy-colored version of Miami; where the biggest problems people have are crappy day jobs and how they’re going to dance their way to internet fame. Our heroes this time are a dance crew/flash mob called The MOB, who stage elaborate street performances and film them, with a vague goal of making their work go viral and winning some sort of youtube competition where youtube pays the first video that gets ten million hits. Because that’s how youtube works, right? They’re languishing, though, and the leader of the mob Sean (Ryan Guzman), seems to lack a certain inspiration the group needs.
This is when he comes across Emily (Kathryn McCormick), the daughter of a hotel baron and aspiring professional dancer. Emily and Sean hit it off immediately, despite their different backgrounds, only to find out that her father (played with only vague corporate menace by Peter Gallagher) is working on a resort deal that would put Sean and his troupe and their whole way of life in the path of the wrecking ball. What are they to do? Dance about it, of course!
This is where the Revolution part of the title comes in, as suddenly the MOB decides that the best way to go about dealing with their looming evictions is to create elaborate protest dance demonstrations. This is initially Emily’s idea, as she inserts herself into the group and urges them to a wider social consciousness, even as she hides that she’s the daughter of the enemy, and hides her flash mob dancing from her father, trying to juggle this and her burgeoning romance with Sean. It’s all pretty generic plot elements, from the lazy romance to the family vs love stuff to the watered down ‘we’re going to lose the house’ plot that somehow is still a trope despite being played out for decades.
The problem isn’t any of this stuff, as uninteresting as it is, but instead the whole ‘social protest’ part of the movie. I’ll admit upfront that I’m willing to take the idea of a big studio dance movie as wanting to make a statement at face value, and take their message seriously. I consider that an obligation to really approaching movies with any sort of openness. Which is why I was ultimately disappointed that this plot is the most problematic part of the movie, manifesting itself in the most uneventful ways. From the beginning, the conflict is ill-defined: yes, losing their businesses is bad, but it’s not like the ‘bad guy’ is even doing anything shady. The movie goes out of its way to point out that everyone is renting their properties, and he’s buying land legally with the approval of the city. There could have been an opportunity for some sort of message about the ease with which cities sell out their own inhabitants for money, but the movie’s never cognizant enough of the politics of these sorts of development deals to go anywhere with it.
Likewise, the protests themselves seem poorly focused. The dancing that’s supposedly for a higher purpose isn’t much different than the dancing that was just to become famous, and the one time that they actually dare to do something that’s a little bit edgy and full of charged imagery it’s the one that the movie paints as ‘going too far’. The entire film the threat of arrest hangs over them for making public disturbances, but even the one time they are arrested it looks like they’re released without incident the next day and go right back to dancing.
Now, I don’t mind keeping the plot moving, but if you’re going to make a movie about protest and what it can do and the risks associated with it, I feel like it’s ultimately really irresponsible to portray it as such an insignificant thing. Not only does it rob the effects of the MOB’s performance of any sort of significance, but it simply isn’t true. We live in a society where for the past few years actual people protesting have been subjected to far worse than being arrested, with armed responses from police and the kinds of organized, systematic responses that are socially worrying and inflammatory. Turning protest into a consequence free choice makes what they’re doing less revolutionary and more petulant indulgence, the exact thing that the detractors of any sort of public demonstration would want people to think of protesting as.
Is it asking too much for the movie to embrace its seeming desire for greater social impact? A story where the troupe was constantly struggling with actual police response, where its members were suffering incarceration or even police violence—where the risks were real and present in the film—would go a long way towards reducing the trite, obvious plot developments that the movie rests on instead. Would it be risky? Sure. But at least it would be trying for something more, instead of just trying on political statements as a cute costume.
And yet for all of this, the movie isn’t bad. It continues to be a series with incredible production values and imaginative choreography, getting world class dancers to provide truly great performances set to an ecclectic, catching soundtrack rife with music that will get everyone in a theater to tap their toes and bob their head. But it all feels like just another one of those, and lesser than the manic competitive highs of Step Up 3D. In fact, the trailers give away a cameo from Moose, the hero of the last movie (and Step Up 2, making him basically the Vin Diesel of this franchise), who shows up right at the end to remind you what an actual interesting male lead looks like and how truly fantastic Step Up 3D was.
Ultimately, then, Step Up Revolution is another one of these movies: more problematic mostly for potential that was never realized, but a great way to spend a hot summer in a theater if you like to watch dancing. And for all the story and plot problems this series and this movie specifically have, there’s nothing so purely cinema than musicals and dance movies. They are one of the most essential expressions of audio-visual storytelling there is, and nothing in modern film approaches this series in terms of realizing the best of what these types of films have to offer in choreographed, rhythmic splendor.
Note: I saw this movie projected digitally in 3D, which is absolutely the way to see it. Dance is inherently about spatial relationships, and thus smart 3D filming really turns it into something special on screen. This and Step Up 3D are still my favorite uses of 3D in a mainstream film. Forget Avatar, this is why 3D is relevant.