A reliable guilty pleasure takes a dramatic step backward but a technological step forward with “Step Up 3D.” Spinning off from Baltimore to New York, this vapid street-dance soap opera boasts the series’ flashiest moves and klutziest script yet, like a brilliant acrobat with a speech impediment; it’s also one of the few 3D releases since “Avatar” to make compelling use of the format, seen to electrifying effect in helmer Jon M. Chu’s ever-more-elaborate dance sequences. Teens will find the experience well worth the price hike, offsetting franchise fatigue enough to yield B.O. in line with pic’s hit predecessors.
Prior to the 3D craze, Channing Tatum served as the series’ chief selling point and special effect; filling his shoes, with a similar combo of good looks and blank affect, is Rick Malambri as the madly multitasking Luke. A mentor, trainer and aspiring filmmaker, Luke has a penchant for collecting ethnically diverse outcasts who also happen to be terrific street dancers. Collectively known as the Pirates, they dwell in quasi-bohemian splendor in a Brooklyn warehouse loft where, per Luke, “we can be ourselves and rules don’t apply.” (Rules do seem to apply, however, insofar as no one in this artists’ enclave seems to have sex, smoke weed or behave in a manner inconsistent with a PG-13 rating.)
Providing the barest connection to the original pics are “Step Up’s” Camille (Alyson Stoner) and “Step Up 2 the Streets'” Moose (Adam G. Sevani), recast here as insufferably inseparable best friends and incoming NYU freshmen. Moose, who looks like a dweeb but dances like a pro, quickly captures Luke’s attention, as does foxy young clubber Natalie (Sharni Vinson), and both are quickly recruited for Pirates duty. Alas, Luke’s warehouse is in danger of being repossessed, and they’ll all be homeless unless (spoiler alert!) they win a dance contest pitting them against their no-good rivals, the Samurai, led by the conniving Julian (an aptly named Joe Slaughter).
Continuing the series trend of installing a fresh writing team for each entry (as if continuity were something to be avoided), Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer stir a little “Rent,” a bit of “West Side Story” and far too many insipid plot turns into their scenario. While the script is rarely the thing when it comes to this kind of teen-skewing action-romance, “Step Up 3D” contains an unreasonable number of howlers for one movie: Dead parents and gambling problems are dredged up to establish backstories, then never referenced again; Luke in particular is saddled with sensitive-artiste lines like, “I just try to see things people don’t normally see,” and, “Everybody here knows what it’s like to be a nomad.”
And yet — once the dance sequences take over, adequate actors suddenly morph into exciting performers, and this flatlining melodrama not only develops a pulse but succeeds in quickening the viewer’s own. The soundtrack is dominated by hip-hop/R&B beats (supervised by Buck Damon), but the pic varies its game with a masquerade-ball tango (who knows why, but who cares?) and a charming interlude — shot in a single take as Stoner and Sevani hoof their way around a corner of Manhattan — which, if not exactly Stanley Donen, seems entirely sincere in its evocation of the spirit of classic musicals, providing a delicate contrast to the stomping and breakdancing that dominate elsewhere.
It would be difficult to overestimate Chu’s contributions here, or his talent for enlivening formulaic material with dynamic lensing, cutting and staging. The energy and verve he summoned in “Step Up 2 the Streets” (whose choreographers reteam here, along with brothers Richmond and Anthony Talauega) are undiminished, and in some ways amplified: While the earlier pic climaxed with a dance number set in the rain, “Step Up 3D” has Moose bust a pipe and flood the entire dance floor — a completely gratuitous but not unwelcome flourish that happily leaves your 3D glasses spattered with water droplets.
Clearly, this isn’t the cinema’s most graceful application of 3D; its pop-out effect is the opposite of immersive, adding a layer of artifice to the very real miracle of these human bodies in motion. (Nor, contrary to the marketing materials, is the film the first of its kind; it was preceded this summer by 3D Brit hit “StreetDance.”)
But in a year that has seen a number of 2D pictures subjected to slapdash conversions, there’s a weird integrity to the way “Step Up 3D” was conceived specifically for the format. Cleanly lensed by Ken Seng (with none of the murkiness that has marred those recent efforts), pic shamelessly maximizes the in-your-face advantages of 3D, whether it’s showering the viewer with bubbles and balloons, or accentuating the prominence of Malambri’s cheekbones. Not since “Captain EO” have dancers shoved their arms so insistently and entertainingly into the viewer’s personal space.