Set in Baltimore, Step Up is a dance movie like many, many others. Jenna Dewan plays Nora, a hard-working and ambitious dancer at a performing-arts high school who dreams of landing a job with a prestigious company when she graduates. Several troupes will have talent scouts at the school’s end-of-semester showcase, where she’ll be performing her new dance project. Channing Tatum is Tyler, who goes to a different high school in one of the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods. Though he hangs out with gangbangers, he himself is strictly a small-time criminal, and one of his misdemeanors gets him sentenced to community service mopping the floors at her school. Nora sees him bust some impressive hip-hop dance moves, and when her dance partner goes down with an injury, Tyler’s the only man available who can lift her up and save her job prospects. They also fall in love because, well, that’s what they’re supposed to do in a movie like this.
In her filmmaking debut, Anne Fletcher becomes the latest in a string of choreographers who have turned their talents to directing movies. It’s not that big a stretch — both disciplines require blocking, and choreography gains a fascinating dimension when the camera moves around the performers as they move. Some dance people prove brilliant behind the lens (Rob Marshall, Chicago), others fail miserably (Susan Stroman, The Producers). Fletcher falls in the middle, doing an acceptable if unexciting job of framing her own dances within the movie screen.
She ultimately loses the battle with her material, though. The script doesn’t have a single element that isn’t entirely predictable, from Nora’s perfectly timed breakup with her old boyfriend to the tragedy that befalls the gangsta wannabe little brother (De’Shawn Washington) of Tyler’s best friend. The two leads are pretty good dancers, but they leave much to be desired as actors. Tatum does all right mimicking the marble-mouthed speech patterns of a white guy who’s grown up in the ‘hood, but the exotically beautiful Dewan — whom you may remember from last spring’s dance movie Take the Lead — is downright terrible. (See her performance as the title character in the slasher flick Tamara for definitive proof.) The only actor who generates any screen presence is Rachel Griffiths, striding elegantly through the halls as the school principal.
Great dance sequences would have saved Step Up, but Fletcher’s creations only rise to the level of watchable. Well executed by the cast, they still aren’t particularly inventive or sexy, and they never inspire you to get up and bust out a few moves of your own. That seals the fate of this utterly conventional flick.
Starring Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan. Directed by Anne Fletcher. Written by Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg. Rated PG-13.