There’s a certain relentless economy of irony in emotionally broad movies like Step Up Revolution, the fourth entry in the Step Up franchise. In a film like this, character and plot development come solely in terms of dramatic setup and payoff, and every strongly emphasized fact has a purpose in the form of a big reversal: If someone points out that two characters have been best friends their entire lives, they’re guaranteed to have a dramatic, friendship-threatening feud in the third act. When someone says no one has ever, ever heard that guy over there speak a single word, they’re guaranteeing he’ll abruptly deliver his two cents’ worth by the end of the movie.
And when co-protagonist Ryan Guzman tells his love interest, So You Think You Can Dance’s Kathryn McCormick, that there’s absolutely no chance he’ll be caught and arrested for the flash-mob dance stunts his crew is doing to raise their YouTube profile and win a viral-video-channel contest, he means there’s a 100 percent chance of exactly that happening. And yet, for a movie so determined not to waste the audience’s time with details unless they’ll lead to the most obvious drama, Step Up Revolution seems awfully determined to waste time in other ways, largely by churning through dance-film plot points that were exhausted by the time of 1984’s Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
McCormick stars as that weary cliché, a classically trained, sheltered dancer who needs creative inspiration to ace her big audition with a famous dance troupe. Guzman (an MMA fighter who, like McCormick, is making his film debut here) co-stars as that equally weary complementary cliché, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks whose fresh street moves might provide that inspiration. To top it off, McCormick’s dad (Peter Gallagher) is, yes, an evil developer who wants to raze Guzman’s underprivileged Miami neighborhood to put up fancy condos. Is there some way Guzman and his dancing buddies can forestall this by putting on a show? Maybe, though not in the usual fashion—since they can’t just earn some money and pay Gallagher off, they have to take their dance to the street in the form of political protests, mirroring the Occupy movement that’s churning up the cultural zeitgeist, but coupling it with big, flashy dance displays.
Those dance sequences are Step Up Revolution’s major sticking point. No one goes to a dance movie for the plot, but the lower the expectations drop for the story, the higher they rise for the raison d’être performances. And the film’s dance sequences are visually rich and impressive, with eye-popping costuming and dynamic staging, but debuting feature director Scott Speer hacks them to bits, focusing so much on visual dynamism that much of the physical dynamism of young, strong bodies doing amazing things is lost. Many of the high-concept flash-mob routines—a huge group number featuring black-suited faux-businessmen acting like lockstep robots, an impossible but lovely art-museum invasion, a joyously erotic routine set in a fancy restaurant—are beautifully conceived, but too often, the editing won’t let the viewers take in their scope, and they end too quickly, possibly out of a desire to not upstage the inevitable big finale.
And as is typical for Step Up movies, the dance sequences keep getting sidelined to make room for broad dialogue and rote conflict: Gallagher gives McCormick one summer to make it as a professional dancer, or face permanent drudgery working for his Cleveland corporation. Guzman’s older sister is similarly trying to force him into a boring management-training program, and his best bud disapproves of McCormick, which strains their longstanding bromance. And hanging over it all is a cartoony class conflict, of the kind that equates financial success with heartless evil, and poverty with youthful vitality and the capacity for human emotion. If no one behind the scenes cared enough about the padding around the money sequences to make it original, believable, or interesting, why is there so much of it? Maybe it’s to create a market for the DVD, which will make it possible to skip straight to the good stuff.