Especially on film, actions ought to speak louder than words, but time and time again, the dancers of Step Up, Step Up 2: The Streets and now Step Up 3D insist on assuring us that the act of dancing is in their bones, a pure expression of emotion and energy, etc. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop the words in between their actions -- that is to say, the exceedingly melodramatic plot developments that lurch forth in between the often striking dance sequences -- from nearly bringing this second sequel to a grinding halt.
This time around, all the self-serious talk is courtesy of Luke (Rick Malambri), a hard-core dancer and would-be filmmaker whose documentary camera allows everyone in his crew to espouse endlessly on their primal drive to pop and lock before a cheering crowd. He believes that every great dancer is "born from a boombox" (the acronym for this -- "BFAB" -- is so often repeated that it's practically the new "fetch"), and while he feels the world should know, he's too shy to share his project with anyone...
...anyone besides Natalie (Sharni Vinson), that is. She's the new girl on the team, a dead ringer for SU2's Briana Evigan as much as Malambri resembles a Channing Tatum knock-off, and she thinks he could even go to film school ("Out in California!") if he'd just take a chance. Luke's stubborn, though, and while he can seemingly afford the latest video cameras and computers, he's fallen behind on the rent for his secretive studio and is naturally forced to do battle against the richer, preppier white boy (Joe Slaughter) for a cash prize that'll cover it.
Don't worry, though. Director Jon M. Chu's got franchise continuity covered, as Moose from the second film (Adam G. Sevani) and Camille from the first one (Alyson Stoner) are BFFs getting situated at NYU and denying their hots for one another. And if you think there won't be enough drama, rest assured that important parties and tests will often conflict with the next critical dance battle. (We're told that the team competing can't be missing any members, but apparently, just in time for the finale, they can add as many as they want. I'm not going to pretend to sit here and comprehend the intricate bylaws of dance-offs. They just tend to be dramatically convenient, is all.)
I struggle to imagine that a single ticket will be sold because some fan out there is eager to see what happens when Moose and Camille head off to the high-schooler ideal of college. Just as people go to the Final Destination films for the death scenes, anyone still turning out to see a Step Up flick is in it for the dance scenes, not the character arcs. Chu always gives his subjects space in terms of both distance and editing, allowing their moves to marvel on their own for the most part. He's especially eager to make the most of shooting in 3D, what with bubbles, balloons, lasers, light bulbs, powder and water often flying at the camera, anything to take advantage of the gimmick at hand.
Then we get a one-take dancing-in-the-streets moment that's technically impressive, even a little winking (characters who haven't rehearsed have the choreography down pat, and when a character helps themselves to a stranger's hat, the stranger actually complains about it). But it's a sequence that sticks out from the general tone of the film by being clearly indebted to old-school, full-blown musicals in the middle of what's essentially a clunky soap opera with some nifty music videos thrown in. If you're going to do the pleasantly earnest thing, the kind of gee-whiz outing where people prefer ghetto blasters to iPods and where Moose can end up as part of an underground dance crew not ten minutes after setting foot on campus, go all the way and spare us the downtime hysterics and sermons about earning respect.
By the time we get to the big showdown, our scrappy team straps on Tron-like light suits that, again, they can somehow afford and put on a flashy show that replaces remarkable talent with impressive technology. It's a handy parallel for how the 3D showcase is meant to distract us from the fact that Step Up 1 is Step Up 2 is Step Up 3, and it's enough to make one wonder if the show really must go on.