“East-Meets-West Side Story” might have made a clunkier but more interesting title for “Make Your Move,” a slick, disposable soap opera about a poor white boy and a spirited Korean girl who fall in love despite hailing from rival corners of Brooklyn’s club scene. Wringing yet another variation on the boy-hoofer-meets-girl-hoofer formula that fueled his screenplays for “Save the Last Dance” and “Step Up,” writer-director Duane Adler weaves an overly tangled web of resentment, betrayal and thuggish violence around his attractive two leads (“Dancing With the Stars” champ Derek Hough and pop star BoA), both of whom display almost enough fancy footwork to overcome the cliches they’ve been saddled with. Theatrical biz will be limited, but this amiable time-filler could have ancillary legs, particularly among the Asian-American audiences being targeted.
A genial, tap-dancing ex-con from New Orleans, Donny (Hough) decides to skip out on his parole and hightail it to Brooklyn, where he hopes to score a dancing gig at Static, the hot underground club owned by his foster brother, Nick (Wesley Jonathan). But Nick is too stressed out and wary to give Donny the welcome he deserves; there’s competition in town, namely a slick new joint run by Nick’s former business partner, Kaz (Will Yun Lee), and funded by a Wall Street sleaze named Michael (Jefferson Brown) with more money than scruples. It’s not long before Donny finds himself caught up in Nick and Kaz’s bitter rivalry, especially when he falls for Kaz’s sister, Aya (BoA), an equally gifted performer who leads a hip-hop dance troupe specializing in taiko drums.
While Michael lusts openly after Aya (referring to the Japan-raised Korean woman as “gourmet Chinese”), she and Donny are clearly kindred spirits, and not just because they look hot doing their 21st-century Astaire-and-Rogers routine on top of a bar counter. They’re both trapped — not only by their respective bossy brothers, but also by their limited options: It’s only a matter of time before Donny’s parole violation catches up with him, and Aya faces deportation back to Japan if she doesn’t land a dancing gig in three weeks. (That there are easier ways of obtaining a visa isn’t entertained for more than a moment.) Despite this, they’re doggedly determined to unlock their full potential as dancers, a goal complicated by their discovery that they make very good partners on and off the dance floor.
There are moments when the moves become so frenzied as to border on ridiculous, never more so than in an overwrought pre-coital makeout scene that, in its bid to update and outdo “Dirty Dancing,” feels more like a triumph of athleticism than an outburst of passion. Still, Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo’s choreography is consistently arresting, cleanly shot by d.p. Gregory Middleton, mercifully not shredded into a hundred pieces by editor Melissa Kent, and backed by a propulsive soundtrack of songs written specifically for the movie (many of them by composers Michael Corcoran and Eric Goldman). Slick production values aside, there’s something admirable about how thoroughly “Make Your Move” commits to shaping its characters as much through music and body movement as through story and dialogue — a wise decision, given how lacking the movie can be in the latter department.
Hough, the brother of dancer-singer-actress Julianne Hough (“Footloose,” “Rock of Ages”), shows more than enough charisma here to fill the leading-man bill; BoA, though no less appealing, is more constricted, especially by the seemingly phonetic quality of her performance. The story that swirls around them is a strenuous and familiar one, full of implausible feats of oneupsmanship and lots of gratuitous macho posturing, but it is interesting for what it says, however fleetingly, about the desirability of Asian women and the compulsive need for certain men to keep them in their place. “Make Your Move” doesn’t entirely liberate Aya from this schema — this is, in the end, a primarily reactive role — but it does keep her moving too long, and too fast, for anyone to pin her down.