The requirements for a passable dance movie are so minimal that it's a mystery why so few good ones get made. Basically, the leads have to have chemistry, and the dance scenes have to be energetic and memorably choreographed. Get those two things down, and all the perfunctory plot elements in the world aren't going to matter; how else to account for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, a sequel made with an almost entirely new cast, 17 years after the original? The dance-movie formula is simple: Combine partners from opposite sides of the tracks, throw in some disapproving parents or administrators, and tie the whole thing together with an over-the-top closing dance number. It's only when the perfunctory plot elements become the movie, as they do in Step Up, that the formula breaks down. In the end, what do audiences want to remember—the dancing, or the insistence that Romeo and Juliet could have gone to art school together if Romeo had his priorities straight?
Rather than cast actors who can't dance or dancers who can't act, Step Up splits the difference with stars Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan, who pull double duty with uninspired competence. Leading a hardscrabble life in a Baltimore foster home, the backward-cap-wearing Tatum loves to get his groove on at neighborhood house parties, but his habit of lifting cars with his buddies puts him on the fast track to juvenile hall. After he and his crew are caught breaking into the Maryland Academy of the Arts, Tatum gets sentenced to 200 hours of community service at the school, and he naturally feels he can match the students step for step. When gifted senior Jenna Dewan loses her dance partner to injury, Tatum offers himself as a rehearsal stand-in, and introduces some street moves into her stiff routine.
Once Step Up gets through the narrative business of pairing Tatum and Dewan, the focus should be on pirouettes, breakdancing, or some giddily ridiculous combination thereof, but the film piles on half a dozen subplots that keep the leads out of pointy shoes. Dewan deals with her egotistical boyfriend's deceptions and a mother who would prefer she focus on college applications, while Tatum can't shake his street connections, which include run-ins with a chop-shop owner played by Heavy D. Then there are the complications brought on by another opposite-side-of-the-tracks courtship, this one between Dewan's best friend and a would-be DJ from the projects, plus some minor character tragedy thrown in for good measure. All that leaves precious little time for busting a move.