“Enough with performance art. It’s time for protest art.”
It’s hard to think critically about the Step Up franchise – the hugely successful dance movies are hardly works of art, but as a cinema of spectacle, they deliver exactly what they promise. It’s interesting to consider the series’ progression: while Step Up featured (future) big names and was more obviously focused on character development and narrative, as the franchise moves from sequel to sequel, both of these aspects have become increasingly sidelined, replaced with dancing – bigger, faster, more elaborate, more intricate. Of course, it’s doubtful people will go to see a dance movie expecting a nuanced script or subtlety, though ideally there would be some balance. So while Miami Heat, the most recent in the series (though not the last – a fifth instalment has been announced, bringing back Briana Evigan from Step Up 2: The Streets), is probably the weakest in terms of acting and original screenplay, it is thoroughly entertaining, and entirely designed to showcase the undeniably impressive dancing, which makes up about 90% of the running time. It plays out like a series of set pieces, loosely held together in a generic narrative with some nice-but-forgettable characters. Rather like the recent instalments of the Fast and Furious franchise, it knows what its audience wants, and it provides it in abundance.
Step Up 4: Miami Heat cashes in on the flash mob craze, introducing Miami crew The Mob in a flashy, in-your-face, over-the-top routine that literally stops the traffic on the city’s South Beach promenade. The crew is the brain child of pretty boy Sean (Ryan Guzman) and his childhood friend Eddy (Misha Hamilton), who break the tedium of their low-wage customer service jobs in a swanky hotel through dance. Their mission is, initially at least, not the most noble of causes – they’re attempting to win $100 000 in an online video competition, but when hotel magnate Mr Anderson (Peter Gallagher, who frequently pops up in dance movies, for some reason) reveals plans to demolish their quirky-poor borough into a high-end hotel complex, their focus is quickly turned to sticking it to the man – through dance, of course. To further complicate matters, Sean’s new love interest Emily (Kathryn McCormick, the third of the series’ rather confusing selection of identikit brunette leads) is none other than Anderson’s daughter, but having spent her life in characterless hotels, she is smitten with the romanticised poverty and sense of community spirit and friendship the group represents. Cue scene after scene of dance routines, each one trying to outdo the last in terms of spectacle and originality – and here, the film does not disappoint.
The routines are particularly stunning, and arguably the most innovative of the franchise to date. The flash mob concept is used to great effect, allowing the crew to infiltrate art exhibitions, restaurants and Evil Corporate Offices and play havoc. Naturally, despite the illegality of their exploits, The Mob gets away with their hooliganism because of the sheer talent on display – who could not be impressed (and, crucially, unthreatened) by their interruptions? Each routine is carefully engineered, tailored for its chosen location and purpose, and shot with stylish precision and the glitzy sheen of a music video. Realism be damned – no one cares how these minimum wage kids are able to acquire pimped out hot rods or perfectly tailored pinstripe suits, for example. And how could no one notice a graffiti artist assembling a two-story robot outside a company’s headquarters? Let’s not even begin to question the logistics of hijacking an art gallery. It’s a moot point, and any viewer to bothers to raise the issue are quickly distracted by LED-lit ballerinas, perfectly choreographed group work, and taut, on-point routines. The arrangement of the narrative allows a wonderful variety of styles, all centred around street dance, of course, but blending in contemporary, ballet, and classical to provide consistently new, impressive spectacle supported by an almost constant barrage of tunes. By the time the ambitious final showdown happens it’s hard to not join Miami’s mayor in helpless, resigned fascination.
Step Up 4: Miami Heat is by no means the strongest of the franchise – that honour is reserved for Step Up 2, which most successfully tread the fine line between dance and story and, personally, is one of the best dance movies to date. The acting is sub-par, yet I cannot help but appreciate the fact that everyone involved was chosen for their dance ability rather than their acting talent – I have no desire to see the feet of a stand in doing impressive stunts just so I can see a recognisable face on screen. The narrative is awash with generic developments, each as inevitable as the next; no prizes for guessing how it ends, folks. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to deny the quality of the dancing, and credit to the film’s writers and director for not only recognising what audiences want, but delivering it in such a polished, exhilarating package.