Friday, 28 November 2014

DANCE FILM: Step Up 4: Miami Heat (2012)

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Step Up 4: Miami Heat (USA, 2012)
Directed by Scott Speer
Starring Ryan Guzman, Kathryn McCormick, Misha Gabriel, Cleopatra Coleman

Most film franchises don't make it past their third instalment. The fourth film in a given series - a "four-quel", to quote Mark Kermode - is often the point where all remaining principles and good intentions go out of the window. The franchise has innovated itself as far as it possibly can, the quality has already started to decline (good three-quels are very rare) and everyone has decided to just give up and enjoy what's left of the box office.

 
Considering the declining fortunes of the Step Up series, you could be forgiven for not holding out much hope for Miami Heat (also known as Step Up Revolution). It comes from a first-time director, features little or no continuity with the previous offering, and is in some respects just as thin and episodic as we've come to expect. But whether through sheer good will or a somewhat tighter second half, it does eventually improve upon its predecessor and ends up as something perfectly passable.
 
It would be quite a stretch to describe any of the Step Up series as auteurist works. The later instalments in particular are so homogenously mainstream and narratively generic that it's hard to see any positive directorial stamp. But it is worth noting that the series has been at its best when Jon M. Chu has not been behind the camera, vacating on this occasion for Scott Speer.
 
Like many modern film directors, Speer comes out of music videos, having cut his teeth shooting promos for Ashley Tisdale, Jordin Sparks and Jason Derulo among others. This will produce a groan among many who despise anyone who comes out of either Disney or reality TV shows like American Idol - and I would often count myself in the latter camp at least. But however mainstream and often sanitised his work may be, Speer knows how to shoot good dancing and how to keep his performers focussed on the task at hand.
 
The first half of Step Up 4: Miami Heat (Miami Heat hereafter) is as boringly predictable as ever. It begins with a pretty decent set-piece and the setting-up of our main characters, who like seemingly every dancer in the history of cinema are waiting for their first big break. From there the plot incorporates incredibly familiar elements such as forbidden love, corporations not having a heart and the underdogs coming together to take a stand. If you've seen any of the first three films, you could watch this with your eyes closed and know exactly where it's going.
 
Each of the Step Up films have been populated by characters who are painted in very broad strokes. In Step Up itself this was acceptable, because director Anne Fletcher used their melodramatic nature as a springboard into something that was appealing and interesting. But since that point the series has become less and less about character and plot, to the point where if you took out all the talking, it would just be a series of music videos.
 
Miami Heat doesn't continue this decline, as if things could get any more inane after Step Up 3. But it is still an immensely episodic venture whose moments of dialogue are often just book-ends to the set-pieces. The characters are so clearly defined in their narrative roles that some of them don't need to open their mouth before we know exactly what they will do by the end. If you were immensely generous, you could point to the tradition of silent cinema and deriving character from gesture, but such traditions seem far from the creators' minds.
 
In terms of the performers, we are again confronted by a number of fine dancers whose acting talents are far outstripped by their ability to bust a move. Like Rick Malambri in the third film, Ryan Guzman is essentially a pretty boy: he doesn't have a great deal of presence, and smiles like he's modelling Levi's jeans. Kathryn McCormick as a dancer is every bit as good as Jenna Dewan in the first film, but she's a little one-dimensional in delivering her lines.
 
Misha Gabriel gets very little to work with as Eddie, having to play the 'attitude' or suspicious role in almost every scene with little variety. And Peter Gallagher mainly lets his greasy hair and suit do the acting for him; there's no evidence of the charisma that he had in, say, sex, lies and videotape. What's arguably worse, however, are the blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances by returning cast members who can act. Adam Sevani returns as Moose for all of two minutes, lifting the final set-piece and then swiftly disappearing.
 
So far, Miami Heat is on a par with Step Up 2 The Streets, being far too loose and lazy with its characters but not as offensively aimless as Step Up 3. And then, around halfway through, the film shifts very slightly and starts to actually carry a little more weight around. The series returns to its roots, trying to use dancing to communicate an idea or contrast with another section of society, rather than just try to impress us with heavily-edited physical exertion.
 
Once the mob turns its focus to Emily's father and his plans for the development, the film stops being just another story about young people being cool and misunderstood, and becomes a story about how gentrification threatens culture. This is a theme that has been explored in musical cinema and theatre before, most notably in Rent.
 
The difference is that Rent is annoying and massively pretentious, claiming to say a lot more than it actually is (and exploiting the AIDS pandemic along the way). Miami Heat is completely no-nonsense: it's proud of what it is, but it doesn't feel the need to shout about it or claim that it's saying anything new or ground-breaking. Its point is simple - that building swanky, modern buildings in places of richly-rooted culture ultimately harms people without big disposable incomes. Once it's made the point, it leaves it where it lies and moves on.
 
From a visual point of view, the film is a little more rough around the edges than Step Up 3 - which is a good thing. At times its colour scheme is oversaturated, so that some of the set-pieces look like either music videos or adverts for skateboarding. But Karsten Gopinath does bring a more kinetic feel in his choice of angles, and the film is edited slickly without drawing too much attention to itself.
 
Ultimately, what redeems Miami Heat is a sheer acknowledgement of the talent of these people. The set-pieces are among the most inventive and spectacular in the series, with exciting uses of lighting and set design which genuinely surprise us. The art gallery sequence and the grand finale are particularly impressive, but each of the set-pieces progress to a well-paced, well-planned conclusion. The choreography is irresistable, so that you find yourself going with it even against your better judgement.
 
Step Up 4: Miami Heat is the best instalment in the franchise since the original, marking a partial return to form after the disappointment of Step Up 3. While the series remains insultingly predictable, and the characters are as broad as ever, it has enough to say and enough evidence of the actors' talent to ultimately make you go along with it. It's hardly the best place to start in exploring the series, but of all the sequels it is the most appealing.

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NEXT REVIEW: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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