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Entries in Step Up 3 [2010] (1)

Sunday
Aug292010

Step Up 3 (2010)

Tonight is What it Means to be Young

My wife and I finally got to see Step Up 3 today; but thanks to Piranha 3D and the release of the Avatar: $3-Billion-or-Bust 3D Special Edition, we were relegated to watching the movie in a whopping two dimensions.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, it would’ve been great to see some of the dance sequences in 3D, with performers and props flying out of the screen (particularly the money shot where Sharni Vinson’s glimmering pierced navel—and the rest of her perfectly toned, unbelievably flexible body—rocket towards the audience in slow motion, as if propelled by an invisible sweat cannon).  On the other hand, there’s a scene in which Vinson and co-star Rick Malambri stand atop a giant air vent and spew Icee ejaculate into the theatre—also in slow motion; this gag works better in 2D.  It’s certainly more hilarious that way.

I had a wonderful time at Step Up 3, and am on the verge of calling it a great movie.  My hesitancy stems from the injection of a plot at the one-third mark, which negates everything that makes the movie—up until then—special.  This film is the culmination of a series of trials and errors that began with the tepid-but-interesting Step Up, got a little better in Step Up 2: The Streets, and reached its zenith with the second sequel.

The key to its success is an almost exclusive focus on the dancing.  The plot and characters are not quite incidental, as they provide context for the many montages and battles, but the earlier films spent too much time on lame TV-teen-drama and not enough on blowing our minds with rhythmic acrobatics.  Step Up 3 is almost a dance docu-drama, packed as it is with talented performers showing off their skills in sequences as varied as they are amazing; from a hip-hop tournament that ends up practically underwater to a rambunctious Astaire-and-Rogers-style frolic down the streets of New York, the movie keeps the surprises coming—as if to dare the viewer into assuming it’s a one-trick pony.

At the outset, the story breezes aimlessly by, following one of the minor characters from the second film, Moose (Adam G. Savani) and his best friend, Camille (Alyson Stoner), as they begin their freshman year at NYU.  Moose has left the dance world behind, at the urging of his strict, square parents, but soon finds himself leaving a campus tour to throw down in a street battle.

He unwittingly defeats a member of the mighty Samurai dance crew (hilariously named Kid Darkness) and inspires the wrath of several be-hooded boogey-nauts.  Moose seeks refuge with the rival Pirates crew, headed by Luke (Malambri), and agrees to help them win the upcoming World Jam competition. Luke also recruits Natalie (Vinson), a mysterious dancer who keeps showing up at the club he runs.

From the first half-hour, I thought Step Up 3 might end up being the antidote to Scott Pilgrim; as Moose keeps running afowl of the Samurai, his feats of escapism become more and more bizarre.  Take, for instance, the scene where he visits the men’s room and winds up dancing and jumping over sinks in order to escape the five thugs who appear out of nowhere—with the lead wearing a tear-away vest made out of working boom box speakers.  Yes, it’s ridiculous, but the movie places us firmly into a bizarre sub-culture where this kind of thing is the norm; and instead of unimaginative special effects, we get truly astounding action that’s easy to follow and hard to believe (all of it accomplished with real people doing real stunt work, thank you very much).

Sadly, there’s an interminable half-hour slog, during which it is revealed that Natalie is not only a mole for the Samurai, she’s also its leader Julien’s (Joe Slaughter) sister.  We also get Moose struggling to stay in NYU’s engineering program; Moose’s budding/not budding/budding again relationship with Camille; the Pirates’ eviction from their club/crash pad; Luke’s refusal to take his secret talents as a documentary filmmaker seriously.

It’s all a mess, and the script smacks of a studio intervention.  I’m convinced that Step Up 3 would have not only been fine, but probably vastly improved, with the omission of this jumble of stock scenarios.  Just make the point of the movie two crews duking it out for bragging rights at the World Jam and be done with it.

By halfheartedly trying to make this a “real” movie, writers Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer open themselves up to criticism for their faulty screenplay.  Not to get to far down into the weeds, but if Natalie obviously comes from a wealthy family, why doesn’t she just give Luke and his friends the money they need to keep the bank from foreclosing on the loft?  And when, exactly, did Moose find time to squeeze in enough studying as to be granted a double major in engineering and dance at the end of the film.  Ugh!

This is why home video was invented, I suppose.  If you can stomach the dead middle portion, by all means check out Step Up 3 in the theatre (in whichever dimensions are available); but this will play just as well at home, where you can jump to the good stuff.  I will give props to director Jon Chu and his casting agents for rounding up artists who know how to act naturally—which is to say that this movie is obviously scripted, but (practically) none of the performances feel as if they came out of a typical teen melodrama.  So if you’re going to zip through this thing, you may want to stop about ten minutes before the big dance-off and soak up some of the performances.

I’ve heard these films referred to as “guilty pleasures”.  But that’s nonsense.  There are no apologies needed for enjoying films that set out to achieve something and succeed in doing so.  A lot of so-called movie lovers would likely not deign to watch Step Up 3, but, honestly, it’s their loss.  And it’s the fear of that snobbish attitude, I think, that compelled the filmmakers to try and make part of their movie something it’s not.  This is an earnest picture with lots of heart and boundless energy and imagination; everything from the set design to the costumes to the music scream passion, youth and freedom.  It defies cynicism with pops and locks and guarantees a good time to anyone who’ll give it a chance.

Note:  I do need to call out one jarring moment of inconsistency with Moose and Camille.  By all accounts, these are good, smart kids; so what’s with their unabashed theft and mayhem spree?  This happens during the aforementioned Astaire/Rogers sequence, and it completely undoes the whimsy of the music they’re dancing to.  I suppose it’s meant to be cute that they steal a guy’s hat and a pair of children’s scooters, and then burst open a bag of trash in the middle of a sidewalk.  But I found it tasteless and wholly out of character.  Worse yet, it made me think of those rotten assholes in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.  Double “Ugh!”