Deftly scrambling elements from “Fame” and “Save the Last Dance,” “Step Up” impresses as crowd-pleasing, teen-skewing fare with possible crossover appeal. Shrewdly positioned as the last blast of summer 2006, Touchstone presentation offers a contemporary take on the warhorse plot about attractive opposites who bring out the best in each other as improbably complementary dance partners. Expect surprisingly upbeat B.O. returns if pic’s target demographic responds to the fresh cast, a formulaic but engaging storyline, and a smoking soundtrack from rap and hip-hop luminaries.
Making her debut as a feature helmer, choreographer Anne Fletcher (“Bring It On”) neatly balances grit and gloss while rendering Baltimore locales in a style best described as romanticized urban realism.
Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) — who’s pretty fly for a white guy — is a moody ne’er-do-well who finds joy in performing gyrations as a free-style street dancer. When he’s not hearty-partying, he hangs with his buddies — burly Mac (Damaine Radcliff) and his kid brother Skinny (De’Shawn Washington) — and helps them steal cars because, apparently, he has nothing better to do.
When the three homies break into the Maryland School for the Arts and exuberantly trash an auditorium, Tyler is the only one who’s caught. Sentenced to 100 hours of community service, he returns to the school as a part-time janitor — just in time to help Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan), a dance student whose partner twists his ankle before the school’s Senior Showcase.
Naturally, they have nothing in common: Nora is fiercely focused and goal-oriented, and lives with her well-to-do mom (Deirdre Lovejoy); Tyler is an aimless slacker who resides in the seedy apartment of his none-too-attentive foster parents.
Just as naturally, they soon are making smooth moves on and off the dance floor. Minor impediments sporadically interrupt their budding bliss, but there’s never any real doubt that, eventually, they’ll wow the crowd at the big show.
“Step Up” isn’t exactly a cliche-free zone. Scripters Duane Adler (who co-wrote “Save the Last Dance”) and Melissa Rosenberg sprinkle stereotypes and stock situations across acres of familiar territory, so that seemingly frosty authority figures (like the school director played by an under-utilized Rachel Griffiths) become sympathetically supportive, and even a surly chop-shop owner (rapper-actor Heavy D) is revealed as a sensitive supporter of the arts.
Even so, the well-cast leads are more than appealing enough to encourage a rooting interest. Better still, they obviously do their own dancing, and do it very well.
As Tyler, Tatum (who, unfortunately, bears a slight resemblance to Vanilla Ice in some scenes) goes beyond traditional sensitive-hunkiness to convey streetwise humor and affecting shadings of pathos. Dewan is credible and creditable while running the gamut from steely determination to tremulous vulnerability.
Standout supporting players include R&B performer Mario as a musically gifted student who never forgets his roots, and Drew Sidora as an ambitious singer.
With strong support from ace lenser Michael Seresin (whose credits include the original “Fame”) and editor Nancy Richardson (“Selena”), Fletcher keeps the pic pulsating with knockout dance sequences, spirited transitions and an overall sense of energetic enthusiasm. On a few occasions, she cleverly devises similarly framed but starkly contrasting scenes to emphasize the distance between the worlds in which Tyler and Nora live. And every so often, she achieves a level of grace and exuberance not unlike that of a classic MGM musical.