As far as "Save the Last Dance"/"Center Stage"/"Dirty Dancing"/"Fame"/"Footloose"/etc. rip-offs go, about two-thirds of "Step Up" isn't bad. The dancing is energetic and skillful, and the predictable, hackneyed plot is benign. But then it slips into an odd tangent that drags out the running time, stalls the central story, and suddenly moves the film from "lame but harmless" territory into the "lame and irritating" realm.
Meet Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum), a lanky, limber teenage thug in an unnamed Maryland city who endures a dismal foster-care situation and slouches his way through school. He derives joy from only two things in life: dancing, and stealing cars.
Tyler is white, but his dialect and best friend are black. The best friend is named Mac (Damaine Radcliff). He has a little brother called Skinny (De'Shawn Washington). Skinny's only purpose in the film is to be on standby until he's needed later for that tangent I mentioned. On a regular basis, Tyler, Mac and Skinny will steal cars and dance the night away, as carefree as three juvenile criminals can be.
After an incident of foolish vandalism, Tyler is sentenced to 200 hours of community service at the Maryland School of the Arts, a Fame-like academy for musicians, dancers and artists. His job is to be a janitor, mopping sweat off the dance floors and sweeping marijuana remnants out of the recording studios.
One day Tyler witnesses a crisis. Nora (Jenna Dewan), one of the school's star pupils, is preparing a dance number for the Senior Showcase, but her partner has sprained his ankle! And none of the other male students are good enough to handle the intermediate-level steps her choreography entails! Could Tyler -- a troubled kid from the wrong side of the tracks with a shady past and nothing left to lose -- possibly "step up" and become Nora's dance partner? Is it crazy? Or is it just crazy enough to work?!
It will not surprise you to learn that Nora has a boyfriend (Josh Henderson) who's a total douche, thus opening the door for her and Tyler to fall in love. Nor do I anticipate much shock on your behalf when Mac feels betrayed by Tyler, believing he should be spending less time dancing with Nora and more time playing basketball and committing grand theft auto with him. Why, even Nora's own mother (Deirdre Lovejoy), a prim and repressed desperate housewife, doesn't really "get" dance. It would seem these two lost souls, Tyler and Nora, are all alone in the world. Can't you just feel the achy teen angst?
The dancing, both Tyler's street-level hip-hop movement and the more classical style of Nora's school, is nicely choreographed by Anne Fletcher, who is also the film's director. It's her first time in that latter capacity, and I suppose this is a good starter project: uncomplicated, no subtlety, no surprises. Maybe she's working her way up to something where the screenplay isn't a photocopy of "Save the Last Dance." (More surprises: "Step Up" was co-written by Duane Adler -- who also wrote "Save the Last Dance.")
Apart from its unoriginality and utter lack of imagination, the film has two major problems. First, Tyler is meant to be similar to Eminem's character in "8 Mile": conflicted, sullen and needing an escape from his dreary world. Unfortunately, when it comes to acting, Channing Tatum is no Eminem. He comes across as mouthy and temperamental, hardly likable as a character, even as a "bad boy" type.
The other problem is that weird sidetrack the movie takes late in the game. Picture this: Everything is in place for Nora's big number in the Senior Showcase, which will surely be a stunning success and result in a standing ovation. (All end-of-the-movie performances result in standing ovations.) We have been in our seats for 90 minutes. We know where it's going. We're just waiting to get there.
And then, suddenly, for no reason at all, the story takes a maudlin turn, with characters we have no interest in coming to the forefront and assaulting us with dramatic developments! There are no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that 1) that person did NOT need to have that happen to him or her, and 2) I don't care. An out-of-nowhere complication does not magically make a shallow movie deep. It just makes it longer.
For characters who behave without motivation, for timeworn plots you have already memorized from other films, and for good-looking people performing frenetic dance moves to an admittedly awesome soundtrack, "Step Up" is just what you're looking for.