Review: “Step Up Revolution.”

Step Up Revolution takes an ancient formula, and attempts to make it fresh by co-opting a legitimate pop culture phenomenon. It’s actually an interesting conceit: many of the dance sequences are the product of an underground group who organizes flash mobs. This gives screenwriter Jenny Mayer and director Scott Speer room to get a little artsy. There are times where a single bulb gives the dancers an ethereal presence, and others where they blatantly rip-off that damn Gotye video. But in between elaborate choreography, the plot oscillates between hackneyed and unintentionally offensive.

The Mob is a group of dancers whose routines are also elaborate pranks. In the opening sequence, the Mob shuts down Ocean Drive so they can publicly show off with a dub-step soundtrack (the moments preceding the dance resemble a heist movie). The main choreographer for the Mob is Sean (Ryan Guzman), a handsome young man from a working-class neighborhood. He works in a fancy hotel, where he has a meet cute with Emily (Kathryn McCormick). Emily’s father (Peter Gallagher) owns the hotel, and while he wants her to work for his company, she dreams of becoming a dancer. What follows is inevitable.  Yes, Emily and Sean get involved. Yes, Emily’s father plans to raze Sean’s neighborhood for a new development. Their only recourse, naturally, is to “break the rules.”

This is fourth film in the Step Up franchise, although this is the first I’ve seen. While the plots share the same essential skeleton, the main difference is how the characters age in each subsequent movie. The idea, I guess, is that the age of the characters should reflect the age of the audience. Sean and the others appear to be in their early twenties, and while teenagers would be a better fit for a dance movie, maturing the franchise is mostly a success. The dancing sequences are varied and sometimes even interesting. Speer’s use of 3D is never a distraction, enhancing the parkour stunts and choreography when it’s necessary.

Still, there are some unfortunate stumbles. Emily’s first dance, set in a beach club, is jaw-droppingly sexualized. Her moves would make a stripper blush, and made me think, “Oh, so that’s where I draw the line.” Later, in an unfortunate twist that no one could predict, the Mob makes us think about The Dark Knight Rises shooting in Colorado. A prank from the Mob begins with dancers in body armor and gas masks. They toss gas canisters into a party, and people are screaming. Without the tragedy, the scene would not have the same dark overtones, yet no one in my theater seemed to mind. They were more interesting in moments of throwaway comedy, and how the dance sequences grew more exponential in scale.

The only way to handle the dialogue in Step Up Revolution is to adjust your expectations accordingly. Once you accept the characters will speak in groan-inducing clichés, you are then free to focus on whether they are adequately convincing. The leads and supporting characters are likable enough, relying more on their moves than what they say. Peter Gallagher is brought in as the Heavy, and he’s able to find nuance with his role as the antagonist with a heart of gold. He imbues his predictable change of heart with gravitas, even though the performance eclipses the quality of the writing.

Step Up Revolution is entertaining on its own terms, and is fairly self-aware about its abundant shortcomings. But in an interesting turn, the Mob matures from a group of attention grabbers into a genuine political movement. The shocking thing about the shift is its relevance. Towards the end, Mayers’ characters argue that irresponsible gentrification will hurt a community’s culture, and that we must have compromise to facilitate smart development. It’s a well-taken point, so I hope the intended audience – of which I am certainly not a member – takes time to think about what the characters ultimately decide.