DANCE FILM: Step Up 3 (2010)

Step Up 3 (USA, 2010)
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring Adam Sevani, Rick Malambri, Sharni Vinson, Alyson Stoner

When the current 3D wave was getting underway, many commentators were arguing for 3D films as a 'unique cinematic experience'. 3D films, it was claimed, would save cinema because they offered audiences something that they could not experience in the comfort of their own homes. The higher ticket prices and often dodgy glasses were excused on the grounds that home entertainment systems could not compete with seeing things come out of the screen in the company of several hundred people.
Five years on from the release of Avatar, we've started to see many aspects of this argument come under fire. TV is undercutting the exclusivity of cinema in 3D and in other areas, and audiences increasingly recognise that 'an extra dimension' does not guarantee a special experience. In the case of Step Up 3, released just one year after James Cameron's bloated epic, even the most eye-popping 3D can't disguise the fact that its plot is a complete and utter mess.
In my review of the original Step Up, I spoke about how its sequels "increasingly sacrificed narrative for the sake of set-pieces". What began in Step Up 2: The Streets has become magnified here, to the point where it is much less a film as a series of sub-MTV music videos. It's not just the fact that the plot is weaker than the previous offerings, it's that the director seems so completely disinterested in the story and focusses all his attention on the individual set-pieces.
To be fair to Jon M. Chu (who also helmed the second film), some of these set-pieces are impressive in their own right. If nothing else is true about these films, they are a genuine showcase for people who wouldn't otherwise be in the Hollywood spotlight. The decline of the all-round star, who could sing and dance as well as act, has meant that the only outlets for talented perfomers like these has been on the stage or coming through the much-mocked Disney system.
The very best of these set-pieces comes around two-thirds of the way in, where Moose (played well by Adam Sevani) and Camille (Alyson Stoner) dance through the streets to a remixed version of 'I Won't Dance' by Fred Astaire. Anyone who saw the VW advert which remixed Singing in the Rain will get a kick out of this, and the choreography is both very modern and a throwback to an age where every prop or piece of set would feature in a routine. Chu also deserves credit for using long takes, dispelling any notion that the performances were 'sexed up' in the editing suite.
The World Jam scenes are equally enjoyable, though the editing is much slicker to give coverage to as many people as possible. Ken Seng doesn't have a glittering reputation as a cinematographer; his previous credits include Obsessed and Quarantine, and he would go on to shoot the awful Project X. But he does bring a lot of colour and energy to this scene, complimenting Chu's desire to showcase the different dance moves through low angles and wide shots.
Taken purely as a showcase for great dancing, Step Up 3 is no better or worse than its predecessor, and dance fans who may be less concerned with narrative may enjoy it on this level. What is disappointing as a film fan is that these performers are given far too little to work with in terms of a story to tie these moments together. While it's unlikely we would have got this far if we weren't even faintly interested in dance, the film still needs to justify or explain the content for those who are less well-versed.
While the story of Step Up was as old as the hills, director Anne Fletcher did manage to put an interesting spin on it, using the different forms to dance to make familiar points about class and overcoming adversity. The plot to Step Up 3 is just as well-worn: a group of people risk having the one thing that matters to them be taken away by another group of people who don't understand them. But Chu either can't bring anything interesting to this idea, or he doesn't seem at all bothered.
The opening of the film is shot very differently to the rest of it, using camcorder-style footage of people talking about what dance means to them and why they do what they do. It's a promising springboard to a film which, in better hands, could have examined the role of dance in modern society or told a nice little story about rebellion, along the lines of Footloose. Instead, it's used to introduce our characters and then abandoned in favour of more conventional visuals.
Each of the different plot points or character details which could turn into a decent story are either underdeveloped or totally ignored. The rivalry between the House of Pirates and the House of Ninjas has potential, but the former feels less like a consciously cohesive whole and more like a bunch of people who are fooling around and only there because the plot demands it. The music is so homogenous that Chu can't use the trick that Robert Wise employed with West Side Story, namely using the music to play up the differences between the Sharks and Jets.
Likewise, Moose's dilemma between dancing and electrical engineering isn't taken as far as perhaps it could have been. We get all the standard scenes of him missing classes and wearing out his friendships, but it's far too generic to hold our attention in the long run. That is quite a crime when we consider just how charismatic Moose was in the second film. For all that is wrong with Dead Poets Society, it did a much better job of portraying the conflict between personal will and parental expectations.
One by one all the narrative possibilities in Step Up 3 are turned over and brushed aside, punctuated by impressive but interchangeable dance sequences. All we are left with to see us through the 90-odd minutes is the charisma of the actors. Unlike Step Up 2, our lead isn't so one-dimensionally aggressive that we cannot build up empathy, but the rest of the performers are a mixed bag on an acting level.
On the good side, Alyson Stoner makes a welcome re-appearance as Camille from the first film. Despite her squeaky-clean appearance, she has a playfulness to her which gives her good chemistry with Sevani and makes their relationship believable. Sharni Vinson is equally capable as Natalie, being far more convincing here than she ever was in Home and Away. On the bad side, Rick Malambri is very much a pretty boy; like many models who have turned to acting, he doesn't have the emotional range needed to cut it at this level.
Step Up 3 is a disappointing mess and remains the low point of the Step Up series. Its few moments of visual splendour are ultimately dismissed by a plot and storytelling which are at best carefree and at worst non-existent. For all the charm of the performers, the result is far too empty and shallow to hold the attentions of all but the most devoted fan. Thank goodness that the sequel turned out to be an improvement.


NEXT REVIEW: The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)