“Your flash mob ain’t nothin’ but a joke!” And thus the gauntlet is thrown down in Step Up All In, the fifth (fifth!) entry into a dance-centric franchise that first got its legs with a relatively low-key romance about a dude from the wrong side of the tracks who woos a pretty gal with the power of his hips, abs, and ability to make baggy sweatpants look sexy. (The first Step Up film, in case you’ve forgotten, showcased the charms of Channing Tatum early in his career – his on-screen paramour, actress Jenna Dewan-Tatum, is now his wife, so yeah, that film worked out pretty well for both of them.) The unlikely series-starter has now spawned four follow-up films, and while each has steadily ratcheted up the intensity, they’ve also upped the entertainment factor to match. This is a series that genuinely keeps getting better and better. (And dancier and dancier.)
For all the spectacle of the Step Up films – and there is a lot of spectacle, thanks to continually show-stopping dance sequences and the kind of bad fashion that would only appear in a screen-set musical – the franchise remains weirdly rooted in the real world. Although each Step Up film has always led up to a big, final, major dance battle, the series has never ventured into international waters. There is no fake “world competition” in these films. No one is going to the Olympics. There is no expectation that the entire world is watching. The competitions that end each film are surprisingly small-scale. The first film wound up to a glorified dance recital, for chrissakes. It was set at a performing arts high school in Baltimore. But these competitions matter – for the characters, for the audience – and that’s never meant that we’re getting some kind of limited performance. It’s full out. It’s, dare we say, all in.
For the fifth film in the franchise, directed by Step Up newbie Trish Sie and penned by the also-new-to-the-series John Swetnam, the competition is the biggest one yet, but it’s admirably couched in some uncomfortable realities. Picking up after the action of Step Up Revolution, the film sees that film’s ostensible “winners” (the competition at hand in the 2012 film actually involved battling evil land developers and winning a sweet Nike commercial), the Miami-based Mob crew, struggling to make it in Los Angeles. Turns out, one commercial doesn’t pay all the bills (especially when your crew includes a dozen members), and auditioning for gigs is hard and embarrassing work (adorably portrayed in a very amusing opening sequence). Everyone except Mob leader Sean (Ryan Guzman) has given up – and who can blame them? they sure look tired and uninspired when they go up against the bold Grim Knights, led by Stephen Stevo Jones – and when they leave Sean alone in Los Angeles, it looks like the dream is dead.
But Sean won’t give up! Especially once he finds out about a brand new reality show (confusingly called “The Vortex”) which boasts both a weirdo pop star host (Izabella Miko, cast as some strange combination of Lady Gaga and Effie from The Hunger Games) and a major prize: a three-year booking in Las Vegas. The real theme of Step Up All In – one laid on thick from start to finish – is that being a professional dancer is hard and sad and strange, and even when you win something that’s personally big (oh, like every other competition we’ve ever seen in a Step Up film so far), that doesn’t make you a star. You still need to pay the bills.
Set on paying the bills and getting some glory, Sean enlists the help of some past Step Up toe-tappers, including Adam Sevani’s fan favorite Moose, Step Up 2 star Brianna Evigan and a motley crew of other familiar faces (fans of Step Up 2 will be especially pleased by the cast list, but there’s plenty here for Revolution aficionados as well). The Step Up films have blended casts before, and there’s an overall mythology already at play here, but Step Up All In makes a move to be the first true all-star edition of the franchise, and it works to charming effect.
Although the film exhibits some obvious tropes – the big move that everyone is afraid to do! the former friends turned enemies! a secret that threatens the entire competition! – and the direction of the narrative is visible from a mile away, that doesn’t diminish the charm and entertainment on display here. The Step Up films are made to wow and dazzle, and Step Up All In does that without missing a damn beat.
The Upside: Surprisingly self-aware, a crowd-pleasing all-star outing, jaw-dropping dance sequences, a solid continuation of the pop-locking franchise (in terms of both style and spirit).
The Downside: Obviously over-the-top plot movements injected to add unnecessary drama, some supporting characters get too little attention, romantic subplot feels forced.
On the Side: The film’s screenwriter, John Swetnam, has another film opening this week: the tornado disaster flick Into the Storm.