“Does this always have to end up in a big, giant dance battle?” sighs Step Up 2 and 3 stalwart Moose (Adam G. Sevani) in the franchise's fifth and newest film, Step Up All In. Well, yes — that's the idea. Every entry has climaxed in sweaty, glorious success: these successive bands of hoofers — strangers to each other—have won the girl, saved the studio, and scored a Nike contract. But the interesting hook this go-round is that these happy endings have proven fleeting. The girl went on tour, the studio was left behind in a move, and the Nike contact was mere pennies after the 12-person dance crew divvied it up into a dozen shares.
So yes, Moose. These broke breakdancers need another dance battle after suffering the indignities of their art, the casting directors who humiliate them into dressing up in lucha libre capes and lederhosen. And like bank robbers for one last heist, this time they've gotta make it count. Here, the prize is a three-year Vegas contract — a natural fit for these funky Olympians—but to impress game show host Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko), over-achiever Sean (Ryan Guzman), who made his debut in the fourth flick, Step Up Revolution, starts a phone tree that summons the most memorable dancers of the previous films: the South American twins (Facundo and Martin Lombard), the incomprehensible Asian girl (Mari Koda), the gorgeous tomboy (Brianna Evigan), that guy who does the killer robot (Chadd Smith), and, blessedly, fan favorite Sevani, a reed-like geek who moves like the reincarnation of Michael Jackson. (He even nails the crotch grab.)
Reuniting, or really, introducing, the gang is a gimmick. (Bouncing out of the theater, a critic friend called it the Fast Five of the franchise.) It's also self-destructive — cramming in all these characters chokes up the plot, and who watches a Step Up for the plot? We're watching to be amazed, and we usually are. The last two films were the purest form of cinema as spectacle: directors Jon M. Chu and Scott Speer had more fun using 3D than James Cameron did with Avatar, and at a fraction of the price. Watching their wild stunts — a stomping, sliding dance in three inches of water, a black-lit ballet, bouncing dance brawlers on bungee cords, and a romantic single-take swirl down the streets of Manhattan — you'd expect Busby Berkeley and Gene Kelly to rise from the grave and applaud.
If only new director Trish Sie shared that sense of poetry. There are a few moments of magic: steam punks dancing in the sand, barbarian girls twirling spears of fire. But Step Up All In cuts too fast, the way an MTV hack does when forced to disguise that their starlet can't move. It takes for granted that we know the cast is great, only showing them off in spurts. And it continually fights against the cynicism in the script, which starts off sighing that dancing doesn't solve your problems while quietly urging you to hope that just maybe this time, it can. If even the amazing Moose has given up the dream to become an engineer, what hope have we of dreaming with him?
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