“Step Up Revolution,” the fourth entry in the venerable dance franchise, is a narrative failure but a triumph of sheer spectacle. As a story about actual human characters, it comes up short, and as a performance film, it’s kinetic and acrobatic, yet misses an essential element of artistry. As a 98-minute eye- and ear-candy delivery device, however, it’s an unquestionable achievement. Given that the latter element was clearly its highest priority, the film ultimately registers as a success, and its superlative 3D work ought to help it continue its predecessors’ modest (if gradually declining) winning streak.
The “Step Up” franchise has never quite gotten over the loss of star Channing Tatum, who used its first installment as a key stepping stone to his current leading-man status. In his place, the filmmakers turn to former male model and MMA fighter Ryan Guzman, who radiates bland charm as the oft-shirtless protag, Sean.
Though he stumbles through a job as a waiter at a posh Miami seaside resort, Sean is preoccupied with his leadership role in a gang of flash-mob dancers — dubbed, creatively, the Mob — who crash public spaces with cleverly choreographed routines. These elaborate stunts are recorded and uploaded to YouTube, where the gang hopes to win a $100,000 prize for having the site’s most popular channel. Standing in their way is that most formidable of viral video attractions: a dubstep-loving kitten.
While the troupe struggles to effectively monetize its online traffic, it’s also faced with the more pressing specter of gentrification and predatory development. The hotel that employs Sean has just been purchased by slick resort tycoon Mr. Anderson (Peter Gallagher, doing yeoman’s work as the only experienced thesp in the primary cast), who aims to raze and redevelop the neighborhood where most of the Mob live. Meanwhile, Anderson’s daughter Emily (Kathryn McCormick) strikes up a relationship with Sean and joins his merry band, her parentage unknown to the gang.
As Anderson begins to close the deal on his new hotel, the Mob turns radical, incorporating some anti-establishment protests into its routines, shutting down an office building with the film’s best choreographed dance sequence, and at one point even appearing in full G8-style guerrilla garb (though the activism is compromised by a bizarre plot twist that would surely make Naomi Klein scream).
Everything about the plot is absurd, of course, and the largely inexperienced cast can’t do much to salvage some groan-worthy dialogue. But there are far worse fantastical realms to inhabit than one in which jobs, money woes and prison stints are but minor inconveniences in between illicit dance parties. The crew even rehearses in a fantastically equipped riverside compound that may as well be a Neverland hideout.
The good news is that the narrative elements take up no more than half the running time. Structured less like a traditional dance film than an old-school skateboarding movie, “Step Up Revolution” contains routines that are essentially staged as heists by director Scott Speer, making creative use of the existing environments; a slow-building stunt in an art gallery is particularly ingenious in this regard. On a technical level, the dance scenes are impeccably assembled, with cameras always placed exactly where they should be, 3D quality that puts a number of bigger-budgeted pics to shame, and sharply intuitive music selections.
The dance routines are all solidly and enthusiastically performed, with even the less experienced hoofers like Guzman showing their best sides. But the aesthetic behind the routines often feels unduly indebted to “So You Think You Can Dance?” from which this film takes its female lead (McCormick), a producer (Adam Shankman), several prominent supporting thesps (Stephen “tWitch” Boss, Mia Michaels), two choreographers (Travis Wall, Chuck Maldonato), and a number of supporting dancers. (If the camera seems to linger on a random passerby with unusual attention, it’s safe to assume they once appeared on the show.) Much like the series, the film is rooted in cuddly versions of various hip-hop styles, with sideways nods to ballet, modern jazz and Cirque-style acrobatics — a strange melange of individually enjoyable elements that never quite meld, like an ice cream sundae topped with caviar.
But as wonky as the film may be, its anything-goes attitude can be infectious, never more so than in a climactic routine that simply throws everything against the wall, not waiting around to see if it sticks.