Step Up: All In

Although not quite at the level of Step Up 3, Step Up: All In is a tonne of fun and a much needed course-correction for the series.

It seems that you can measure the quality of a Step Up movie by two factors.  The first is how seriously it takes itself, the second is how much Adam Sevani’s character, Moose, is in the thing.  The factors even seem to be linked to one another: the less serious a film is, the more that Moose is going to be in it and the better the film itself will be.  Step Up was an overly serious romance drama, clearly written by white people (clears throat), that was dreadfully dull, abysmally paced and had very little actual dancing and what dancing it did have being uninspired and flatly filmed.  It also had no Moose, but it did have 2006-era Channing Tatum who, even when blank-faced and not particularly good, could still radiate charm and goofy likability from his wonderfully toned abdominals.

Step Up 2 The Streets jettisoned most of the self-seriousness, introduced Moose and brought director Jon M. Chu to the franchise; the result had some pacing issues but was a fair bit of fun.  Step Up 3 vented whatever seriousness the franchise had left out of an airlock, promoted Moose to second lead, added 3D, threw pretty much everything it had at the dance sequences, fixed the pacing issues and was a genuinely great and fun time at the movies.  Step Up Revolution decided it wanted to be “about something” and did so at the cost of fun, Moose and pretty much everything that makes a great Step Up movie.

So you could say that I was sceptical when wandering into Step Up 5: All In (credited as just Step Up: All In in the film itself).  Fact of the matter is that this series had so far had two great instalments and two terrible instalments with the two great instalments being directed by the same guy.  I was worried that this would turn out to be a franchise that only one director truly “got” and with everyone else trying to make it something that it’s not.  This is the thing with movies that are made to be lightweight and fun: the second you start taking the enterprise too seriously and try and turn it into something it’s not, you expose the whole thing as shallow and create a joyless atmosphere that makes proceedings drag.  Both non-Jon M. Chu directors so far seem to have been embarrassed by the fact that they’re making silly dance movies and whereas he embraced that silliness, they moved as far away from it as possible and ended up making bad films as a result.

Very fortunately, All In’s director, Trish Sie (best known for choreographing pretty much every OK Go video that ever went viral), and its scriptwriter, John Swetnam, know for a fact that they are making a silly dance movie and they make no bones about that fact.  They don’t embrace it quite as totally as Jon M. Chu did (let us not forget that this was a real thing that happened in Step Up 3), but they seem more than comfortable about it.  The result is that, after being conspicuously absent from Revolution, the fun has been brought back to Step Up.  This is a silly, lightweight, fun-as-hell film that sticks to its strengths, doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel but manages to bring the series to a very satisfying possible close.  Oh, and it does this by predominately aiming to be a comedy.

No, really.  I mean, Step Up films have always been comedies, just not completely open or self-aware ones.  The bad Step Up films are unintentional comedies, whilst the good ones get their humour from playing the absurdity of their material as straight as they possibly get whilst still having fun with it (or, to put it another way, this happens in Step Up 3 and no-one, not even the film, lampshades its existence).  All In still plays its more absurd moments as straight as fun can get away with, but it also attempts to craft actual jokes and legitimate laughs on a frequent basis.  Surprisingly, this actually works!  It’s not so much down to the material – sample scene: there’s a bit where Moose’s parents cook goat balls for our two leads and the joke is that the concept of goat balls is gross – and more the actors and actresses who, holy hell, are insanely committed to their roles, this time.  David Shreibman plays a new character named Chad who is a pimping, preening, try-too-hard salsa teacher whose every move is excessively flamboyant (he is not gay before anybody starts getting worried) and whose lines of dialogue are wonderfully hammy and well-delivered.  Adam Sevani gets to play both audience surrogate and relative straight man and he says more with a grinning background headshake or a lampshading “Does everything have to end in a dance battle?” than most actors in proper comedy films I’ve seen this year.  And then there is the character of Alexxa Brava.

In fact, brief stop here for the requisite premise dump.  We’re six months on from Revolution and The Mob are failing to make it in LA after their big Nike ad.  At a club one night, Sean (a much, much improved Ryan Guzman) gets into an altercation with new kid on the block Jasper (Steven Jones) and their respective crews have a dance-off… which results in The Mob getting thoroughly served.  Fed up with LA and Sean’s leadership, the rest of The Mob split back to Miami whilst Sean stays behind to try one last time to make it.  Opportunity arises when he stumbles across an ad for a new televised dance show called The Vortex, whose prize is a guaranteed three year booking at Las Vegas.

Sean is determined to win, so he ropes in Moose (Adam Sevani who is still effortlessly charming and likeable and WHY HAS HE NOT BEEN GIVEN THE LEAD LEAD ROLE IN ONE OF THESE FILMS YET?!) to help establish a crew to take the top prize, comprising pretty much every single good guy character from Step Ups 2 and 3 including Andie (a much, much, much, much improved Briana Evigan).  Will they end up running into The Mob whilst going through the tournament?  You bet!  Will Jasper and his crew seem to effortlessly breeze through the tournament despite never giving a performance as good as that one at the club?  Uh-huh!  Does the tournament end up less savoury and fair than it first appears?  Don’t ya just know it!

Original plotting is not, never has been, and never will be Step Up’s strong suit.  And that is always fine as long as it delivers that formulaic plotting in fun and visually splendid ways, and All In pretty much strikes gold with the dual benefits of Vegas and overblown reality TV talent shows.  The first round involves the crew having to make a demo tape proving their worthiness to the judges and it’s self-consciously overblown and silly in a way that Revolution’s concept dances never quite reached.  As for when they get to Vegas, the dance battles are held on clearly expensive stages designed to fuel the ridiculous TV narrative (one takes place in a boxing ring and has song changes punctuated by a ring girl strutting across the ring with a round number card, for the love of God) and are drenched in showmanship.

It is into this that we are presented with Alexxa Brava, played pitch perfectly by Izabella Miko.  She is the show’s host and, I swear this is true, every single thing she said sent me into giggle fits.  She’s permanently dressed like she just wandered out of Lady Gaga’s rejected wardrobe, speaks with the kind of über phony breathy voice used in pretentious perfume ads the world over, over-eggs every single line she is given to read, and dramatically pauses over the slightest thing like a constantly distracted Davina McCall.  It is an incredibly broad caricature of talent show hosts, and especially overly serious talent shows, a one-joke pony and goddammit I could not stop laughing whenever she opened her mouth.  It’s like if Mad Moxxi from Borderlands didn’t speak exclusively in double entendres and left pretty much every sentence hanging for a good five seconds before finishing it.

Alexxa is the perfect example of when the film’s more overly comical side works.  I mean, it does sometimes falls flat (once again, goat balls), but when it works, which is often when it does the stuff that it would usually do deadpan but with a bit more of a self-aware tinge to help things along, it works gangbusters.  I laughed more at this than I have done for most actual comedies so far this year.  Also surprisingly working gangbusters?  The romance stuff.  Sean and Andie are the main couple the film attempts to ship together and whilst it’s still a little forced and a little token, I mostly don’t have a problem with it because Guzman and Evigan are both much better and much more committed to their roles this time, and have very good chemistry together.  Moose and Camille’s relationship is limited to a few scenes, ends up roughly how you’d expect but still works because Moose & Camille OTP forever!  And there’s even a briefly glimpsed romance for the team’s “human robot” and the scant few moments that he and she (who is basically a gender-flipped version of him) have, wordless and solely communicated by them playing up their robot dance moves, I found sweeter and more romantic than the token romances in most action films.  Not kidding.

But how about those dance sequences, otherwise known as the main reason most of you are paying to see this thing?  Well, though they still don’t pop quite like Jon M. Chu could make ‘em, they’re all very well done.  The opening dance battle at the club pulls out a very impressive dance sequence for The Mob set to some Method Man and then immediately and noticeably tops it with Jasper’s crew (I usually find that these sequences involve the two teams being just as good as one another with the victory being arbitrary, so it’s nice to see the series can pull it off without having to make the losing side just plain suck).  All of the dances do great work with perspectives that would clearly do wonders if seen in 3D (which I did not) and often without resorting to throwing things at the screen.

Most notably, the dances have been tightened up, this time.  Revolution’s dances were often too wide-reaching, too many things going on in too many places with too many people, and that made it hard to know what I was supposed to be focussing on, leading to a constant feeling that I was missing something.  All In reigns in that scale and, whilst some may see that as a step back, I am all for that as the film always makes it clear as to who you should be focussing on when and keeping everyone in focus meant I never felt like I was missing anything due to a misplaced camera or the like.

If this review seems a little simplistic, a little childish and casual in its usage of language and descriptors and the like, it’s because All In kind of deserves that kind of analysis.  It’s not deep and it’s not revelatory but it knows that, it owns that.  This is a film with low stakes that are artificially heightened at certain points for quick, easy, predictable drama.  Character arcs are black and white simple and accomplished in precisely the amount of time you’re thinking they take (Sean is the only one in it to win, so much so that he may have lost sight of the true joy of dancing).  The final dance of the film is preluded by having a character stand on stage with a microphone and monologue the film’s moral almost directly to camera.  And all of this is OK because the film is in on it!  It knows what it is, it’s not ashamed of what it is, and it’s decided that it’s going to have some goddamn fun whilst it does what it does best!  Who cares that you’ve seen this film before, multiple times, done best the third time, when the film itself is a lot of highly entertaining fun?

I am friends with the kind of people that like to class this series as “The Fast & Furious of dance movies”.  That kind of sentiment sounds weird when first said, but going through this series, and especially during All In, I’ve discovered that they are actually bang on.  Both series had inauspicious starts that took their concepts a bit too seriously, loosened up as they went along and got better as a result, built up an armoury of strong diverse characters who, on first impression, seem rather disposable but whose every appearance as time goes on becomes a grin-inducing and (for lack of a better phrase) heart-warming occurrence, and have slowly become the major player in their respective genres.  Step Up even has its own version of Han, in the form of Moose!  I honestly can’t think of higher praise for a silly popcorn movie about dancing than that.

So, no, it’s not going to change any lives and, yes, Step Up 3 is still the pinnacle of the series, but Step Up 5: All In is a huge surprise in a Summer lacking in both surprises and genuinely great films.  It’s a film that takes proceedings in this super naively optimistic dance movie as seriously as they deserve and embraces fun with both arms wide outstretched.  Its cast is assured, comfortable and convincing in their roles and having the time of their lives, its script is the definition of formulaic but is extremely well-paced and surprisingly legitimately funny, and, though it lacks anything on the level of the “I Won’t Dance” bit from the third film (what can I say, I’m a sucker for one-take sequences and homages to classic Hollywood), the dance sequences are of the usual high standard you’ve come to expect from the series.

Step Up honestly looked unstable after the total failure of Revolution, which risked torpedoing the series by falling back on bad habits of the overly serious nature, but Trish Sie, John Swetnam and pretty much everybody involved in this series have pulled off a major course correct and created a film that I’m genuinely enjoying more the more I think about it.  I’m not sure where the series is going to go from here, the last dance actually carries a sense of finality to proceedings even though the series could keep running if it wanted to, but I know that I want in if they’re going to remain near the level of, and maybe even one day surpassing, Step Up 3!

But, hey, don’t just take my word for it.  I’m pretty sure that, during my teenager filled screening, I heard more excitable members of the audience audibly clapping at certain points.  That’s a first in my cinema-going experiences, let me tell you.

Callie Petch is just straight ill riding their motorcycle down the street.

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