Q: What's the difference between actors and movie stars? A: Stars can command attention by simply sitting in a chair. Actors have to work for it. Antonio Banderas is a star. That doesn't mean he isn't a fine actor too, but it does mean he has an easier time of it when stuck in a movie like Take The Lead, which offers few surprises and fewer acting challenges. Sometimes showing up and looking suave is enough to get the job done.
And Banderas looks pretty suave throughout Take The Lead, in which he plays Pierre Dulaine, a real-life ballroom-dancing champion and instructor who's taken his lessons to inner-city schools, albeit probably not in circumstances as dramatic as those seen here. After witnessing angry, suspiciously twentysomething-looking teen Rob Brown trashing a car belonging to his high-school principal (Alfre Woodard), Banderas volunteers his services to the school, doing what he does best: dancing. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Neither does Woodard's decision to put Banderas in charge of an afterschool detention session populated by a photogenic bunch of multicultural students apparently being punished for an abundance of sass-talk. After initially turning up their noses when Banderas exposes them to George Gershwin, the foxtrot, and the "rooombaa," the bunch learns that their love of movement transcends their distaste for the golden age of American songwriting. Or, as one kid puts it when he sees the mirror-ball in Banderas' dance studio, "It's corny… but it's cool."
Take The Lead, on the other hand, is corny and uncool. Initially, it doesn't matter. Banderas is so winning in the lead that the film's early scenes are almost as persuasive as one of his lectures. Veteran video director Liz Friedlander takes an unglamorous approach to her urban environment. That and some nice turns by some of the younger stars—especially Brown and Degrassi: The Next Generation regular Lauren Collins—also keep the film grounded for a while. But then the formula kicks in, contrived conflicts force Banderas to the sidelines, and it all starts to live up to the phony uplift promised by the title. Star power is fine, but it doesn't put out enough heat on its own.