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Film review: Step Up All In ***

By Preston Wilder

Certain myths persist when it comes to well-known movies. The plot of Inception is impossible to follow. The photography in Lord of the Rings is really good photography. Or, my favourite: the dialogue in the Step Up films is wooden, but the dance scenes are AMAZING. These are not unreasonable fallacies; you can see how they might’ve arisen. Inception is indeed very complicated; Lord of the Rings looks nice, if you like mountains and computer images. But come on.

The one about the dance scenes in Step Up is perhaps the most baffling – because the manic break-dancing in this eight-year-old franchise has more energy than grace. Only rarely does it offer the buzz of seeing the precise rhythm of the music in the dancer’s body (I saw it maybe once in this latest Step Up, when one of the Grim Knights B-boys to ‘Lap Dance’). Mostly the moves seem random, and repetitive. There’s a lot of punching the air and stomping from side to side, like a Maori haka (this is battle music, hence the dance-offs and contests). There are set moves, like the back-flip or balancing on one hand. Individual dancers add their own gimmicks: one is double-jointed, another a ‘human robot’. All in all, the claims of mind-blowing greatness seem exaggerated – yet they persist in our collective psyche, helping the franchise to its current fifth instalment.

That said, Step Up All In is the best one yet, not just because it reunites cast members old and new (Ryan Guzman made his debut in the fourth film, Step Up Revolution, while Briana Evigan hasn’t been part of the franchise since Step Up 2 six years ago) but because the dancers have some real problems for once. Revolution was especially galling in this respect, opening with Sean and his friends blocking traffic with an impromptu ‘flash mob’ –  making me sympathise with those poor drivers being inconvenienced so the spoiled-brat dancers could have their moment. Step Ups have always come with a whiff of arrogance, full of dancers preening and bigging up their dance skills.

This time, however, it’s different. The fun is over; Sean and his mob (known as The Mob) are out in the real world, the Nike ad that climaxed Revolution – proving that all revolutions end in the bosom of a giant corporation – having led to nothing except endless frustrating auditions. Dancers need day-jobs, making ends meet by “primping models” or “cha-cha-ing with cougars”, or else working as waitresses and pizza guys. Even Moose (Adam Sevani), the lynchpin of the series, who’s enlivened many a Step Up with his hyperactive energy – even Moose is now grown up, working as a lab engineer for a scary boss whose grandma was a prison warden (now that’s scary). “My life is totally different now,” he explains when Sean wants to put together a crew and take part in a dance contest. “I’ve got a lot of responsibility”. Et tu, Moose?

The vibe is subtly transformed. Where before there was entitlement, Step Up All In shows humility. Where before there were corporate tie-ins (the aforementioned Nike ad), Step Up All In comes with a healthy mistrust of all things organised, including the dance contest which turns out to be rigged. And the flipside, quite charmingly, is an emphasis on dance as an end in itself – not for competing, or winning contests, but just for dancing, and hanging out with other dancers (the f-word, ‘family’, turns up more than once). Dance as a profession is tough and corrupt – so let’s celebrate dance as a pastime, bringing the whole world together. The film introduces Moose’s grandparents, an elderly Mittel-European couple (they call him “Mooski”) whom we glimpse swaying tenderly in the living-room when no-one’s looking; “They still dance!” marvel our heroes. Dancing is part of life and happens spontaneously, at an amusement park (to Bobby Brown) or in a Chinese restaurant. Even the human robot finds a female robot, whom he courts through the medium of dance. “Poor robot bastard,” muses Moose.

This, unexpectedly, is a very sweet movie. The only slight problem are the dance scenes – which are just as manic and pointlessly enervated as in previous Step Ups. Strutting and gyrating in unison, the dancers look synthetic, like wind-up toys placed next to each other as part of a child’s game. Neophyte director Trish Sie does her best, wisely foregoing realism and treating the routines as musical numbers – the climax is cheerfully implausible, with the crew having seemingly worked out an entire ballet with elaborate props at a day’s notice – but the actual moves are the weakest part of this stepped-up Step Up. Then again, I’m sure many people will find them amazing. Bet they’re still trying to figure out Inception too.

 

DIRECTED BY Trish Sie

STARRING Ryan Guzman, Briana Evigan, Adam Sevani

US 2014                           112mins

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