Kids are swinging on subway car poles. Faces masked and bodies brilliant, young dancers flip between seats, spin on their heads, keep time on doors with drumsticks and—of course—document themselves on video. Bringing their art to the people, namely, wide-eyed Baltimore metro riders, the crew’s performance is clever, certainly eye-catching. When authorities appear, they scatter, sliding down escalator railings, charging up staircases, sprinting through crowds. Faster, better organized, and more athletic than their would-be captors, the kids escape. Whee.
The vibrant opening sequence of Step Up 2 The Streets demonstrates impressive energy and wit. (In the words of one participant, “That was sick!”) However, what follows—save for one other stunt video showcased in the second act—is lackluster franchising. The formula, in case you missed the first film (itself derived from most every dance picture ever made) has a poor kid crashing a rich kids’ party, in the Step Up case, the Maryland School of the Arts. In the sequel, the crasher is Andie (Briana Evigan), orphaned and unconvincingly angry, and especially resentful of her guardian, dead mom’s best friend Sarah (Sonja Sohn, poorly served by this mess). “She is flippin’ out,” Andie complains to a friend, but does nothing to appease Sarah by, say, getting home on time or attending class, because she’s so devoted to her stunting dance crew. And so Sarah delivers the dance movie cliché, threatening the worst fate imaginable, to send her off to her aunt in Texas.
Worried and confused, Andie heads to the dance club, where she stumbles on local legend Tyler (Channing Tatum), the first film’s designated crasher. Now he’s big-time, he exults, about to go on tour, but before he goes, Tyler pauses to hand off his baton to Andie. Their trampoline dance challenge reveals her as the patently inferior dancer, even raising questions as to why she’s the recipient of said baton. But oh well, there she is, with his imprimatur and chance to audition for MSA, and so, a chance to stay in Baltimore with her crew, 410.
Though Andie does her best to sabotage this chance at what she thinks she wants (her audition performance is exactly what the panel is not looking for, all kinds of popping and slithering), in fact, she’s accepted, primarily because she’s caught the eye of Chase (Robert Hoffman), faux-rebellious brother of the school’s director, Blake (Will Kemp) (their names suggesting their parents perused a book of movie-cliché preppie boy names). Andie causes the requisite trouble during formal dance instruction by uptight Blake (and never does appear to attend a regular class, like algebra), but starts arriving late at rehearsals with 410. Fed up with her disrespect, crew leader Tuck (Black Thomas) expels her, meaning…
Andie has to start her own crew. Abetted by Chase in a “Meet Your New Best Friends” montage, Andie invites MSA’s misfits to join (one’s geeky, another too tall, another too stunty, not to mention Asian-Latino-and-black); within minutes, they’re all agreed to aim for The Streets, a dance contest that comes up at any time and any place, announced just minutes beforehand, rave-like, by text messages to approved cellphones. True, Andie faces a very brief sadness, as the change in team means she leaves behind BFFs, one black and the other Latina, per formula. But then her team checks out the competition at a club one night, going so far as to engage in an ill-advised pre-Streets contest and so reveal just how corny and unprepared they are. This sets them up for the usual ridicule and moment of despondency, alleviated when the best Latina friend, Felicia (Danielle Polanco), has her own falling out with Tuck over his big-bullyness and throws in with MSA. Now the team can prepare in earnest: let the rehearsal montages begin.
It’s not a little obvious that the Step Up franchise means to keep a Disneyfied hand in the apparently inexorable dance movie cycle. Even when they’re dissed with an in-joke (“This ain’t no High School Musical!”), the MSA team is, in fact, pretty caught up in exactly that plot, derived from or running parallel to the usual suspects (You Got Served, Stomp the Yard, How She Move, Love Finds Andy Hardy). Though the film insists on its multi-cultiness, somehow it lets slide some acutely uncomfortable moments (Mari Kido as a Japanese dancer who stumbles over English language sounds). And though Hi-Hat brings her signature ingenious choreography, the film can’t resist the inevitable overstatement. For the last scene, all the usual plot points grind into gear: Sarah forgives Andie’s sneaking around at the crucial moment when her team needs her most; the team (all except Chase working as waiters during MSA’s big fundraiser) decides to reject the school and show their Streets mettle; and the climactic number is set during a torrential downpour, allowing for all kinds of great effects that couldn’t possible have been rehearsed on the film’s many other sunny days. That the white couple is so excruciatingly showcased in the final, self-congratulatory kiss only overkills the overkill.