The franchise that launched Channing Tatum’s career limps its way to Las Vegas in “Step Up All In,” where characters with bum knees and broken hearts compete for a shot at a three-year casino dance contract. With even less plot than in previous installments to get in the way of its inventive 3D dance scenes, this fifth pic delivers on spectacle — especially in its nine-minute, flame-throwing Caesars Palace finale — but lacks in chemistry, trying to pair the leads of the second and fourth films after their co-stars dumped them. Although the series’ box office has been slipping, this “all in” reunion (minus Tatum) could reverse the trend ever so slightly.
By this point, the characters have reached an age where dancing for fun doesn’t cut it, so they must find a way to make a living in the famously brutal field, whose humiliating auditions and frequent rejections make for a playful if out-of-sync credits sequence. It seems Sean (Ryan Guzman) and his crew, the Mob, moved from Miami to Los Angeles sometime after 2012’s “Step Up Revolution,” but now, they’re all late on their rent and decide to leave Sean to fend for himself in L.A.
Sean’s romantic partner from the last movie has also lost interest, which leaves this cute but astonishingly uncharismatic guy to sit alone in his room, pondering whatever it is shirtless, expressionless guys ponder while pretending not to think about their strategically exposed eight-packs. Sean decides to Google dancing opportunities, which leads him to a reality-show contest called “The Vortex,” hosted by a glamazon (Polish dancer Izabella Miko) clearly channeling Elizabeth Banks’ “The Hunger Games” emcee.
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So far, the common thread between the “Step Up” sequels — apart from watching sparks fly between a good girl and bad guy — has been goofy supporting actor Adam Sevani, aka “Moose.” Once the gangly sidekick, Moose has filled out and coupled up, even taking a grown-up job at an engineering lab that will make a convenient backdrop for their crazy-cool mad-scientist audition tape.
For whatever reason, Sean doesn’t think to ask the Mob to compete with him in Vegas (surprise: they turn up anyway), instead relying on Moose to recruit a new crew composed of dancers featured in the past three movies. Moose’s first stop: “Step Up 2 the Streets” star Briana Evigan, back as Andie, who needs no excuse to quit her fashion-industry gig — or to drop everything mid-shoot and battle Sean in a room full of giant yellow balloons.
Screenwriter John Swetnam (a tyro scribe also credited with next month’s “Into the Storm”) won’t win any awards for the clumsy scenes he inserts between first-time director Trish Sie’s stunning dance numbers. That said, the easily resolved dramatic conflicts — a blooming romance between Sean and Andie, a misunderstanding between Moose and his g.f. (Alyson Stoner, who played Tatum’s kid sister in the original “Step Up”), and bad karma between Sean and the Mob — are wisely kept to a minimum, even if, say, bringing back the lovebirds’ respective exes might’ve made things more interesting.
Besides, eager young dance fans will sit through stale storylines as long as the movie can supply fresh moves, and in that department, Sie and her team of three choreographers have it covered. Gone are the silly flash mobs seen in the previous film, going back instead to the idea of epic dance battles set to cutting-edge club music. In the L.A.-set, Vancouver-shot opening, Sean steps up to a guy named Jasper (Stephen “Stev-o” Jones), whose Grim Knights crew puts them to shame, busting moves that take full advantage of the 3D cameras. Naturally, Jasper will resurface in Vegas, with an ace up his sleeve that will make things virtually impossible for Sean and his new LMNTRIX team to top.
Given all the great international dance crews assembled for the “Vortex” competish, one has to wonder why we should care about Sean, who spends most of his time pouting about how life isn’t fair. A personality like that has no business being in Vegas, where the house always wins, though it’s high time “Step Up” arrived there. If anything, this series could actually work better onstage, where the franchise name would conceivably bring in younger audiences. Talk about a safe bet.