Step Up 2: The Streets is about a million times better than its predecessor. The credit to that can go to the fact that Channing Tatum does not star in this loose sequel – he only shows up for a brief, painful cameo. Further, the dancing in this film is (if I may borrow a phrase from the streets)… “off the hook”. Although actually, it’s not so much dancing in the traditional sense, it’s more like acrobatics. If you’re not doing back-flips and hand-stands during your dance routine, you’ll never make it with the big dogs.
We open with an incredible dance scene on a subway perpetrated by an underground dance troupe which calls themselves ‘410’. I’m not sure their dancing is what enrages city officials so much as the way they tag walls with graffiti, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe NYC police are incredibly afraid of dance riots. In any case, the movie shows right off the bat that its intent is to one-up the original Step Up. The subway scene has a cinematic vibe to it and some truly amazing turns. I found myself comparing this hip-hop/dance to parkour, which I don’t think is much of a stretch given that Tatum is apparently working on a ‘Parkour’ project right now, per IMDB.
Our heroine in this movie is a girl named Andie who is the friend, sister, or cousin of Tyler from the first movie. I don’t really know which. Tyler is famous now and going on tour with his girlfriend Nora (aren’t you glad that that relationship is still going strong?), but he comes back to show his new and improved dance moves, which involve a trampoline, and to encourage Andie to sign up for the Maryland School of the Arts. It’ll change yo life.
As an aside, I was interested by Tyler’s new-found fame. Perhaps it comes from watching too much “Lost” recently, but I can’t help but look back at the accidentally broken window from the first movie and see it as fate now. If they hadn’t tricked Skinny into trying to break into a car, then he wouldn’t have run down the street, they wouldn’t have thrown trash, the window wouldn’t have broken, and Tyler wouldn’t have become a super-star. That’s crazy. Further, I also found it easy to see Tyler playing the “Rocky Balboa” character here – the slightly slower loser who works hard and comes out on top, only to play moral guide to those who are still trying to make it.
Anyway. Andie makes it into the MSA (which is what the kids are all calling it nowadays) because one of the judges has enormous pull and likes her hip-hop routine. The other judges are looking for something a bit more normal – perhaps a normal sort of ballet. Andie gets into the school, but then clashes with her teachers because she doesn’t care about learning the basics of dance – she just wants to feel the rhythm and show off her rocking midriff. Who can blame her? So the first movie was all about trying to get into the Maryland School of the Arts, and the second movie is all about getting out. Returning… to the streets. Because there’s a big dance competition going on in the streets, but it’s so secret (because the cops will bust it up if they find out!) that the people who are invited will only be told via text the night of the competition. Nobody will know where or when it is happening prior to the text being sent.
So Andie recruits a gang of oddballs and misfits to join her in taking it to the streets. Of course, the MSA leadership isn’t having it. After the MSA oddballs piss off a rival dance gang, they come back to the school to find it completely trashed – mirrors broken, graffiti everywhere, garbage strewn about, equipment demolished. The faculty rightly sees this as a sign of worse things to come. I kept trying to remind the students that the streets is a place where people die. I seem to remember someone being shot dead in cold blood in the first movie. Yet the students at MSA are so sheltered that they don’t realize what kind of gruesome murder they are sure to be subjected to. They think it’s all fun and games to break into a rival dance-gang leader’s house and leave a dead fish in his air vents. They don’t even stop to consider that maybe he will bust out some firearms and gun them all down.
The quick response from the MSA faculty to shut down any hip-hop at the school seems completely reasonable, given that it is obviously leading toward a violent conclusion. This causes some skirmishes among our misfit alliance as they are all forced to question their allegiance to the group. Where the first movie focused on the personal relationship between two people mainly, the second movie’s central focus is on the collective relationship of a group of people. But both try to address how difficult it is to balance your relationships between the people that you work with (MSA) and the people that you are friends with outside of work (410). Can they both be your friends, or must you choose between the two?
As the movie nears its conclusion, everybody receives the fateful text message. They all stop what they are doing and look off into space, deciding what they will do. This is it. This is the moment when fate comes into play. This is the breaking of the window all over again. Of course they all choose to take it to the streets, and the next scene shows the entire group walking purposefully together toward their destination. I kind of wish that the movie would have ended right there. I know that the danger wasn’t stated explicitly, that I was only interpreting the idea that they might all be killed if they showed up at the competition, but I liked to imagine that that ending was the reality. I’d rather see them all walking confidently to what could very likely be death than to see what must actually follow…
A final dance-off, a false yet empowering speech delivered to a crowd of what-ought-to-be unenthusiastic listeners, and the wrapping up of all the loose plot-lines (e.g. will the very strict headmaster finally become lenient when it comes to hip-hop? will the dorky kid get the girl?).
I liked Step Up 2 a lot more than the first movie. The dancing is so much better, it’s amazing. Check out a scene where the MSA group tries to show their skillz to the 410 before the final competition. The school group thinks that they’ve been training hard, only to be shown up by the 3-ring circus that is the 410. And I was maybe reading too much into the movie, but I did see all these themes (collective vs. personal, getting in vs. getting out, lower class vs. upper-middle class) that I didn’t pay as much attention to in the first movie. I kept notes when I watched Step Up 2 and I wrote things like, “Siren blares; nobody flinches.” I was impressed by that, because in the streets, a police or an ambulance siren is just a fact of life. Maybe I’m giving the movie too much credit.
Either way, this movie was a thrill ride compared to the original. Maybe not as intelligent as I would like to believe, but extremely fun nonetheless. I can’t imagine what could be better than taking this movie and making it even more awesome by putting it into 3-D… which is exactly what this summer’s Step Up 3-D will be doing. Is it safe to say yet that each movie is going to be an, ahem, step up from the previous installment? LOL
This review was written 06/04/2010.