The time has come. Zero Hour. Step Up 3D is finally upon us, like a totally flip, flop and fly apocalypse. But you’re not ready to see such a powerhouse piece of filmmaking unless you’ve properly caught up… with Step Up. Earlier this week we took a look at the first Step Up, the hit machine that was both sincere and sincerely stupid. Today we return to analyze the even more popular sequel Step Up 2 The Streets, which may be one of those rare sequels that outdoes the original. Luckily the original was so oppressively mediocre that there’s still plenty of room for Step Up 2 The Streets to suck.
The year was 2008, two years after Step Up became a surprising box office smash. The sequel was inevitable. The ridiculous title was not. Previous director Anne Fletcher was busying herself with the Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses, which freed the position for young director Jon Chu, whose previous credits consisted of a few well-received shorts. Chu, working with new screenwriters Karen Barna (“The Mountain”) and Toni Ann Johnson (Save The Last Dance), took the series in a new but ridiculously similar direction. Step 2 The Streets would take place in the same world as Step Up, but feature a new cast and now focus exclusively on impressive choreography, as opposed to the first film’s emphasis on unimpressive romance. The results are highly watchable. Not particularly good, but highly watchable.
Briana Evigan (Sorority Row) stars as Andie West, who in the opening sequence describes in voice-over how magical street dancing is, and how her mother supported her dream to dance in “The Streets,” which is the most important dancing competition there is. Every dancer in Baltimore apparently spends all year doing nothing but train for this competition… unless they were in the first movie, in which case no one had ever heard about it. Andie then goes on to mournfully reveal that her mother “got sick” and died when she was 16. After that, “Everything changed. Including The Streets.” Andie never explains why her mother’s untimely death had such a dramatic impact on a street dancing competition. Maybe she was on the board of directors?
The film then segues into a generic subway terminal, where a group of ordinary individuals are just going about their business when scary black people board the train, take their positions, put on masks and proceed to… get jiggy with it? Yes, it turns out the entire incident is an elaborate “prank” that Andie’s street team filming for YouTube in an effort to improve their street credibility. There’s nothing wrong with this sequence. In fact, it’s actually interesting filmmaking. Chu doesn’t have much to work with in Step Up 2 The Streets, and as such seems to be stealing wholesale filmmaking styles from separate genres in an effort to keep things interesting. There aren’t terribly many musicals or dance movies that utilize tropes from heist films, but that’s exactly what Chu is doing here. The film starts with a big, successful feat by a team of experienced specialists. Later, Andie will be forced to put together a new team, rehearse and perform similar acts in order to prove herself. Although it’s not a consistent parallel, Chu bends the two genres often enough to leave a lasting impression.
Anyway, apparently “The Wire” seriously oversold the amount of actual crime going on in Baltimore, because Andie’s street crew – called “The 410” – makes all the news stations and is referred to unironically as an “attack.” (It’s hard to remember a time before Flash Mobs, isn’t it?) Andie’s guardian Sarah, played by “The Wire’s” Sonja Sohn, can’t take this troublemaking any longer, and threatens to send Andie away to live in Texas. That’s actually a perfectly valid opening for a dance movie in-and-of-itself. Andie could move to Texas and bring street dancing to a place that probably has very little of it. But instead she runs away, so the plot finds an even more contrived way to get the plot started. It’s amusing to find yet another veteran of “The Wire” getting stuck playing the disapproving mother figure in the Step Up movies, but it makes sense. Both productions shot in Baltimore, so it was probably damned convenient for everyone involved. Of course with “The Wire” long since cancelled, it may be unlikely that Amy Ryan will play Moose’s mom in Step Up 3-D. Fingers crossed regardless.
So Andie runs away from home and makes an immediate pit stop at a dance club, where lo and behold Tyler Gage is in the hiz-house! Yes, Channing Tatum returns briefly to pass the torch to Briana Evigan, with whom he was apparently close friends, but not close enough for her to have appeared in the first film. Nowadays Tyler Gage is a prodigal son who made good, and announces here that he and Nora (who couldn’t be bothered to show up, apparently) are going on tour together. What’s more, he offers Andie a chance to stay in Baltimore by hooking her up with an audition to his old art school, MSA. Andie reacts poorly to this suggestion, but there’s no logical explanation for her disapproval of MSA. If it wasn’t for that particular school, Tyler Gage wouldn’t be the superstar he is today, even on the streets. The whole thing is just a contrived way of making her decision a teensy bit more dramatic. Even more contrived is their decision to “battle” for her future. If he dances in a superior fashion, she goes to school. If she dances in a superior fashion, I guess she gets to live on the street and become a drug addict or something. There’s an elaborately choreographed sequence involving incongruously placed trampolines in the dance floor. Tyler wins, because otherwise there would be no film, although the system of judging is completely inscrutable. There are no scoring systems. At the end everybody just knows who won. I guess “The Streets” go by the honor system.
Tyler leaves, telling Andie “My work is done,” by which he no doubt means his brief cameo. She goes to MSA, knowing that if she doesn’t get in she’ll have to leave town, and auditions in front of a panel that actually needs to discuss their decisions, rather than simply rush the stage and bounce into the dancers they like best like they do on the streets. This panel includes Blake Collins (Will Kemp), the new director of MSA. (No mention is made of Rachel Griffith’s character from the first film, so screw it… I choose to think she died of in an freak nude jet skiing accident.) He wears black all the time, so he’s treated like the bad guy. He doesn’t want Andie to get into the school because “she’s a just street dancer.” Luckily, Blake’s brother Chase (Robert Hoffman) is allowed to be a judge too, even though he’s still a student. Chase thinks Andie is the bee’s knees, and challenges Blake to give her a chance to prove herself. Their relationship between these two brothers is steeped in intense nepotism and conflict, and one imagines that given their ridiculous names, Blake and Chase Collins probably stormed into the franchise off of the “Bold and the Beautiful” set. Were Ridge and Thorne Forrester too busy to stop by?
With Blake in charge, MSA has changed somewhat. Whereas in the previous film students played classical music in the halls and all looked they were taking happy pills all the damned time, in Step Up 2 The Streets it would seem like their funding has been slashed a bit, since the only thing students seem to do besides hang out in the dance studio is compare headshots. There’s also a more strictly enforced caste system. Whereas in Tyler’s era dating the custodian was apparently your best bet for popularity, now a large portion of the school lives like second-class citizens for even lesser transgressions. Some, like Andie and her new friend Moose (Adam G. Sevani), are even forced to eat lunch next to the trash cans. S*** just got real, yo. What’s worse, Andie needs afterschool tutoring to keep up with her classes, keeping her from rehearsing with the 410.
Before long, battle lines are drawn. Andie gets kicked out of the 410 by their leader Tuck (Black Thomas) for missing rehearsals, even though MSA is the only reason she gets to stay in Baltimore in the first place to stay with their crew. At no point do these people suggest pushing their rehearsals back an hour or so, which is odd since apart from Andie, these people have nothing else to do all day. Meanwhile, “evil” Director Collins volunteers hours of his personal time to making Andie a better dancer, and still gets treated like the bad guy for some reason. Rather than commit herself to her studies, Andie and Chase team up with Moose and a group of lovable losers to form their own crew, cleverly titled “MSA,” to compete on the streets. Again, the heist mentality returns to the film, as the recruitment of this new crew involves an elaborate montage displaying their various skills and personality traits.
Andie takes her team to the club to show off their moves, but they completely tank despite obviously dancing better in the previous montage. (There really are a lot of montages.) I guess they got psyched out. Tuck’s team thoroughly trounces them, apparently, and they go home, defeated. One of Andie’s old teammates, Missy (Danielle Polanco), switches sides after the previous evening’s conflict. “What they did to you was wrong,” Missy says. What was wrong, exactly? Defeating them in a fair competition?
Anyway, they decide that “MSA” needs to perform a “prank” of their own in order to regain their street cred. So they videotape themselves dancing behind Tuck in various public settings, and then they videotape themselves breaking into and vandalizing his house, and showing their faces in the process. They even put this on YouTube. The only way they could be dumber is if they put all their cell phone numbers in the credits. On the other hand, their prank, which involved hiding fish in Tuck’s house, does give Black Thomas the best line in the whole film: “Why does my crib smell like Funyuns, broccoli and ball sweat?!” Nice product placement, Funyuns. I hope you got a discount for that one.
The MSA continue to rehearse in preparation for The Streets, and Andie and Chase start falling for each other (you’re shocked, I know). They take a brief interlude at Missy’s family barbecue in an awkward attempt to recapture the magic of the Paso Doble sequence in Strictly Ballroom. Andie puts on a dress for the first time in the film, possibly ever, giving Missy the second best line: “Oooh, Miss Thing, you got titties!” (Just to clarify, that line was, “Oooh, Miss Thing, you got titties.” Really.) Andie doesn’t really have “titties” to speak of, and Jon Chu is aware of this, choosing to spend most of the film ogling her svelte stomach instead. The party ends with Tuck beating the crap out of Chase, followed the next day by the revelation that the 410 broke into MSA and vandalized the place. Unlike Step Up, where vandalizing the school was a ticket to a free scholarship, Director Collins threatens to expel anyone participating in The Streets. Andie is kicked out of school and her group is disbanded and mopes around individually, even though there’s really no reason why they couldn’t at least hang out together once in a while.
Days go by and all the lovable losers of MSA are forced into subservience at the school fundraiser when suddenly, their phones ring. The Streets, the date and location of which are always kept secret until the last minute, are tonight. No explanation is given as to how the crew nobody likes got on the mailing list. (Maybe they really did put their phone numbers at the end of that YouTube video.) Anyway, they all walk out dramatically and go to Andie’s house, where their speeches about how Andie changed their lives convince Sarah that Andie has indeed changed their lives. She lets Andie go to The Streets, but by the time they get there, it looks like Tuck’s already won.
Meanwhile, Director Collins finds out that the kids have walked out and goes to prevent them from doing something “illegal.” (What is an illegal dance competition, anyway? Did they not file the proper paperwork or something? Do the losers get shot?) Luckily, Moose stayed behind for no reason whatsoever other than to lead Blake to the right spot. Andie gives a thoroughly unconvincing speech about how The Streets are about freedom or something and the MSA finally gets to dance, this time literally in the streets during a torrential downpour. They turn in a pretty spectacular performance, because in the Step Up universe physical performers actually get better the less they rehearse, which may be the least plausible aspect of the film (saying something). They win the day, again based on the honor system. Director Collins is impressed and lets Andie back into the school, and Andie and Chase share their first kiss. Incidentally, it’s still pouring rain. Presumably they all died from pneumonia shortly thereafter. Oh, how I’m looking forward to that bit of backstory in Step Up 3-D.
It really is ironic that a film as plotless as Step Up 2 The Streets takes that long to summarize, but that’s because it turns into a total mess in order to beef up the running time, combining elements of the dancing, teen romance, heist, gang violence and martial arts genres in an effort to keep the events interesting. Step Up benefitted from a simple storyline of star-crossed lovers to keep the film easy the follow. Step Up 2 The Streets, in contrast, focuses on the competitive aspects of dancing and turns into a mess of underdog clichés as a result. The romance also falls apart due to a lack of decent competition for the protagonists’ hearts. Tuck keeps asking Andie to hang out with him, and she always stands him up, but it never seems like she missed out on a potential love interest. The most Tuck ever had planned for her involved a Playstation 2. Meanwhile, Chase has an ex-girlfriend of sorts who gets to look jealous but never actually steps up 2 villain status by tearing him apart from Andie, which is strange since she has many opportunities and God knows the film could have used more conflict.
Chu’s best method of distracting the audience – and he clearly knows this – is filling every scene with as much dancing as humanly possible, whether it belongs or not. Actually, this kind of works. Every actor is a talented physical performer and even the smallest dance sequence in the Step Up 2 The Streets easily trumps the best Step Up had to offer. Chu knows how to film these sequences, neatly avoiding any rapid editing techniques that would have made the performers’ hard work seem futile. The film is bright, colorful and crisply edited, and although the story is messy and uninvolving it’s a testament to the talent of the professionals behind the camera and the choreography in front of it that Step Up 2 The Streets is arguably better than the original, at least when viewed as a performance film.
Step Up 2 The Streets is a textbook example of how to overcome incompetence. The terrible plotting and generally weak acting are overshadowed by a palpable love and talent for dancing, so it’s a good thing that dancing’s what the movie is all about. (If the movie had been about Hurricane Katrina, it might have been a problem. Might.) It’s worth watching to see some damned impressive choreography, but there’s really no other reason to see this pointless little film; unless of course you’re getting ready to see Step Up 3D. But now, dear readers, you don’t have to. Because now, you’re all caught up… with Step Up.