Film review: Born to the boombox

The ultimate dilemma any critic faces when writing a movie review is, what, exactly, makes a movie good? So many different elements are at play that the criteria changes with each movie. "Step Up 3D," for example, poses a problem. Failing as it does on so many standard artistic levels, can it still succeed based on what its dance-movie genre promises? Because "Step Up 3D" may have no plot and terrible acting, but as far as dance is concerned, it is terrific.

When the first "Step Up" was released in 2006, it launched young actor Channing Tatum to super-stardom and re-popularized the dance movie, which had been in serious decline since 1987’s Patrick Swayze blockbuster "Dirty Dancing." But, even today, romance and dance go well together, and they still provide the basic foundation for a successful dance movie.

The sequel to "Step Up" followed the same basic storyline as the first one with slightly different characters. There was the hot male dancer, tortured by his upbringing or family issues or whatever-sounds-cool, and the female dancer (also hot), usually a strong-headed girl who likes to lead but falls for the leading man, eventually softening enough follow him, at least on the dance floor.

The pair usually heads a team of dancers who, instead of having any discernible personalities of their own, inhabit reflections of personality-elements. There is the angry one, the sad one, the nerdy one, the funny one, etc. At some point in the movie, the team is compelled to fight for some kind of prize for reasons whose believability and importance are secondary to the amazing dance routines that follow.

It won’t spoil "Step Up 3D" to say that the dance team led by the main couple usually wins, and perform a highly elaborate routine in celebration.

"Step Up 3D" follows this basic formula, with Luke (played by Rick Malambri) as the male dancer and Natalie (played by Australian actress and dancer Sharni Vinson) as the female dancer. A character named Moose, who appeared in the previous "Step Up" movies, has relocated to New York City (perhaps to allow the musical director to use Jay-Z’s extremely popular song "Empire State of Mind"), after promising his mother that, instead of dancing, he is going to study electrical engineering. But Moose soon stumbles upon a dance battle where he meets Luke and his dance crew, called House of Pirates. He joins the team to compete in the World Jam Dance contest (the promised competition for a prize) against their rivals, House of Samurai.

The movie, with an estimated budget of US$30 million, has grossed US$42 million in the United States and US$95 million internationally. In keeping with the formula, these high numbers probably mean that director Jon Chu is already plotting "Step Up 4."

As a critic, it’s hard to ignore the unoriginal plot and terrible acting. But, when it comes to this kind of movie, who really cares? Most viewers will be mesmerized by the amazing choreography and the beautiful people performing it.

The fact that the movie is in 3D doesn’t hurt either. This technique, as high-quality as that used in "Avatar," helps the dances and scenery come to life. A single scene, shot in streets of New York City, turns the viewer into a tourist.

And, while they did not deliver any believable acting, the dancers are spot on with each move, and stunning visuals–the movie makes good use of light, water and dust–and great costumes add a lot. The style is mostly hip hop and street dance, but tango and Broadway routines are highlights. At one point, House of Pirates dance in a dusty old house, and their movements create dust patterns, adding an extra layer to their routine. Water and suits adorned with lights are used in the same way to elevate the routines to a new level.

Just as a dance movie comes with a standard plot, it comes with a standard audience of young, hopeless romantics who are looking for a love story, a couple of cliched conflicts and stunning dance performances. That audience will certainly think that "Step Up 3D" is very, very good.

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