The later Step Up movies, like the most recent entries in the now article-less Fast & Furious franchise, seem to take place in a better, brighter, more colorful world where every problem has the same solution—physics-defying car chases in the latter, elaborately choreographed dance-offs in the former.
“Does this always have to end in a big giant dance battle?” shouts one character early in the newest (though probably not the last) Step Up movie, Step Up All In. It’s a funny line, but its self-consciousness doesn’t really gel with the tone of the series, which has never invited ironic appreciation. Despite being inherently absurd, the best entries in the series—the ones in 3-D—have never functioned as pure camp; instead, the pleasure of watching them lies in the wall-to-wall dance sequences, which are distinguished by an energy and sense of movement that puts most modern action movies to shame.
Such is the case with All In, which marks the feature-directing debut of choreographer Trish Sie, best known for her music videos for OK Go, including the breakout “Here It Goes Again.” The previous Step Up flick, Scott Speer’s Miami-set Step Up Revolution, was flashy and visually busy, full of low angles and rushing camera movements that made it look like the sort of movie Michael Bay would make if he had any sense of continuity or space. Sie’s style is more modest; as in her videos, she favors sharp, planimetric wide shots, which are more concerned with framing the dance floor than the dancers. In 3-D—which is really the only proper way to see the movie—this has the effect of turning the screen into a stage, with an emphasis on the way in which the dancers (all of them excellent, of course) move backward and forward through the space.
The approach yields some great results: an impromptu duet in a bright-yellow Tilt-A-Whirl, the jutting angles emphasized by the level and largely static camera; a long take in which Jesse “Casper” Brown—one of the few good things about the nearly irredeemable Battle Of The Year—suddenly bounds into frame, B-boying to “Lapdance”; floor-level shots that end with a dancer sliding right up to the lens. The third is something of a dance-flick cliché, but it works like gangbusters almost every time All In uses it.
The plot—not that anyone cares, or should—finds Revolution protagonist Sean (Ryan Guzman) breaking up with his Miami crew, the MOB, and having to start over with a new group, LMNTRIX, composed almost entirely of characters from Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D. LMNTRIX, the MOB, and an antagonist crew so nefarious they’re called The Grim Knights all end up competing against one other on The Vortex, a VH1 reality show where the grand prize is a three-year residency in Las Vegas. (This leads to some broad, Josie And The Pussycats-esque satire of reality TV, and some surprising honesty about the fact that dance—however cool-looking—isn’t exactly a career that pays the bills.) As in the earlier Step Up movies, the pleasure of the “dramatic” scenes lies mostly in background action, whether it’s the Santiago Twins (Martín and Facundo Lombard) pocketing hotel toiletries while Sean has a serious talk with Step Up 2: The Streets lead Andie (Briana Evigan), or series regular Jenny Kido (Mari Koda) continually making a certain crass gesture while another character explains a plot twist.
Because of a combination of viewer expectations and overall acting ability (the cast members are, for the large part, dancers first and actors a distant second), All In never introduces a conflict that couldn’t be solved with dancing. It’s the rare movie that knows its limitations, but also understands how to use form to best convey its strengths, pulling together countless complicated dance scenes in which the relationships between teams and characters come through more clearly than they could through dialogue.