(by Dustin Putman
If the first three films in a series have all been nothing particularly special at best and mostly forgettable at worst, chances are a fourth installment will not be the one to turn things around. Exhibit A in proving this theory wrong is "Step Up: Revolution," easily the best entry in the surprisingly financially successful dance franchise. The plot is a creaky festoon of cliches all rolled up into one, and, yes, it's difficult to take any of it very seriously because of just how familiar its subplots and story threads are. Fortunately, director Scott Speer (making his feature debut) has enlivened its antiquated elements with such ambitious polish, energy and sincerity that it's just as easy getting swept away in the foot-stomping, sumptuously photographed charm of it all. Also featuring the most involving central love story of all the "Step Up" movies - the characters here actually approach multiple dimensions - "Step Up: Revolution" works in spite of its familiarity because Speer and first-time scribe Jenny Mayer believe in what they've made. Together, they've found a beating heart and a glimmer of social consciousness to go along with the show-stopping dance theatrics. Article continues below
College-aged Sean Asa (Ryan Guzman) is a member of a dancing flash mob - called, simply, "The Mob" - that is taking Miami's South Beach by storm. Living with his older sister (Megan Boone) and little niece (Dominique Bell), he is hedging all his bets on an upcoming dance contest with a $100,000 grand prize. When he meets Emily (Kathryn McCormick) at the posh hotel where he works as a waiter, he is instantly smitten, unaware that she is the daughter of real estate development magnate Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher). When the Cleveland-based Emily, who has arrived in Miami for the summer in hopes of winning a spot in a competitive dance company, discovers Sean's extracurricular underground activities, she convinces his crew to let her join. With no one else, including Sean's best friend Eddy (Misha Gabriel), aware of Emily's connections, she finds herself suddenly caught in the middle when her dad announces plans to tear down an entire strip of the island to make way for a new shopping and resort complex. Believing that they can turn their dancing into a meaningful statement, "The Mob" decides it's high time their special brand of performance art became protest art.
Miami is an irresistible cinematic city, and its white, sandy beaches and shining neon lights at dusk are an invaluable asset to the high style that "Step Up: Revolution" unashamedly flaunts. Seemingly every major event right down to the most minor of character interactions take place in front of a picturesque backdrop, the lot of them shot to the nines by cinematographer Karsten Gopinath. Mix that with the unblemished scantily clad bodies on display, in addition to an ongoing carousel of masterfully elaborate dance sequences filmed and edited like ornate musical numbers, and it's quite the surprise that the film also earns a certain emotional resonance in spite of its supreme gaudiness. With the exception of Sean's and Emily's beach dance at the onset of meeting each other, with Emily doing little more than swiveling her hips and grabbing herself like she desperately has to pee, the action, as it were, does not disappoint. The opening flash mob atop a stream of cars on Ocean Avenue gets things off to an auspicious start, and then it's one-upped by another dance set-piece where "The Mob" infiltrates the Miami Museum of International Art and Culture, the participants blending into the paintings and sculptures before coming alive in front of Emily's - and an amazed group of onlookers' - eyes. There are plenty more noteworthy flash mobs where those came from, part of the entertainment value being the surprise of when and where they pop up.
Dance talent over acting chops is probably the top priority when casting the "Step Up" movies (which would explain why so many of the actors are unknowns), but the filmmakers lucked out with Ryan Guzman and Kathryn McCormick. As Sean and Emily, Guzman (who has no other movie or television credits to his name) and McCormick (who appeared on a past season of "So You Think You Can Dance" and had only a bit part in 2009's "Fame") are devastatingly good-looking, yet remain likable and sympathetic. Together, they build the foundation for an onscreen relationship that feels real and palpable even as it follows a predictable path at every turn. Fortunately, there is a certain substance beneath their exteriors (McCormick is especially eye-catching, looking like a cross between Eliza Dushku and a 1980s-era Mia Sara), and when they both, respectively, see their dreams of professionally dancing slowly slip away from them, there is a surprisingly quiet pathos brought to their disappointments. It also makes their climactic triumph all the sweeter. In supporting roles, Peter Gallagher (2010's "Burlesque") reels back the villainy even as he must play the heavy, a businessman who has a lot to still learn about his misunderstood daughter, and Mia Michaels, primarily a choreographer, is excellent as daunting, straight-talking dance company head Olivia.
"Step Up: Revolution" looks fabulous and sounds just as pleasing, the eclectic soundtrack making strong use of a parade of genres, from R&B and pop to indie rock and salsa. With the exception of one ill-conceived development where Eddy gets angry and acts a fool after finding out Emily is related to Mr. Anderson - since she's on their side and has been helping out "The Mob," why, exactly, does it matter what her blood connections are? - there is something almost quaintly pleasing about the movie's plucky, old-hat "let's-save-our-land-from-developers" premise. Meanwhile, the way Sean helps Emily train by waterside for her performance at the dance company, and later consummates his feelings for her as they dance together in front of her disapproving father, helping to melt his heart along the way, there are definite hints of 1987's "Dirty Dancing" in its foundation. Whereas 2006's "Step Up," 2008's "Step Up 2: The Streets," and 2010's "Step Up 3" don't belong anywhere in the same sentence as that Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey-starrer, "Step Up: Revolution" at least exists somewhere on the outer fringes of the same stratosphere. It might not reach full-on classic mode, but it's not for a lack of gumption.