LOS ANGELES - With "Step Up Revolution," their second summertime at-bat after "Rock of Ages," producers Adam Shankman and Jennifer Gibgot return to one of the things they do best - making young unknowns look like the next big thing. In its fourth installment, however, the "Step Up" franchise has traded an air of inevitability for one of predictability. While die-hard fans and dance fanatics will respond on the opening weekend, ongoing competition from superheroes and cute cartoon characters may slow momentum in subsequent weeks.
After dancing its way across Baltimore and New York City in previous iterations, "Step Up" moves to Miami, where homeboys Sean (Ryan Guzman) and Eddy (Misha Gabriel) have been best buds since toddler-hood and now lead a local dance flash mob known as, well, "The Mob," just to keep things simple. Together with their crew, including choreographers, visual artists and a DJ, the guys have been busting out surprise dance numbers all over Miami and shooting video to compete in a YouTube contest to win $1 million.
Sean's day job as a waiter at a luxury hotel helps support his dance habit and pay the rent on the house he shares with his single-mom sister (Megan Boone) and niece. When Emily Anderson (Kathryn McCormick) turns up at the hotel - owned by her father Bill (Peter Gallagher), a ruthless real-estate developer - for a summer of bartending while preparing to audition for a coveted spot with a high-toned local dance company, attraction inevitably sparks between the two.
As it turns out, aloof Emily needs Sean's help more than she suspects. Seems that the dance company director (Mia Michaels) thinks Emily is a talented performer but wound a bit too tightly to be truly creative. So if she wants to make it onto the roster, Emily is going to need some new moves, which she figures Sean can help deliver once she discovers he's one of the motivators behind The Mob. After her video debut, a sexy number in a crowded, fancy restaurant, draws millions of hits online, Emily's brought on with the group as they plan their next outrageous "mission."
However there's one major obstacle looming over the pair's romantic bliss and professional success: Emily's dad is determined to build a new luxury development after razing the multiracial community where Sean lives and hangs out with other Mob members. Although Sean agrees to keep Emily's identity concealed while she rehearses and performs with his crew, if word gets out, his street cred will be totally shot, which could complicate that business about winning the YouTube video contest. Emily has another idea, though, encouraging Sean and The Mob to stand up to her dad's development plans with some proactive dance interventions.
Much like hit-making music producers, Shankman and Gibgot have orchestrated a surprisingly winning series that takes promising filmmakers and performers and turns them into recognizable professionals, like directing alum John M. Chu and former man-candy dancer Channing Tatum. Making his feature-filmmaking debut, music-video and TV director Scott Speer acquits himself adequately, particularly since the movie is more akin to a long-form video project.
Playwright and first-time screenwriter Amanda Brody plays it safe, leaving the pyrotechnics to the choreography team and sticking to the franchise's proven dance-romance formula, which offers few surprises but delivers effectively. The attempt to add a modicum of social relevance to an essentially carefree entertainment vehicle by staging dance protests against the resort development is pretty much a nonstarter, particularly since there's no indication that The Mob's illegal assemblies are attracting the least law-enforcement attention.
Abercrombie & Fitch model Guzman looks every bit the metrosexual romantic lead, but also makes a credible partner for "So You Think You Can Dance" star McCormick. Fortunately, neither is called upon to stretch too far in the acting department and both are able to get by with good looks and flashy moves. Supporting cast-members are adequate if not outstanding, but it's the choreographers, led by franchise vet Jamal Sims, who really put the shine on the production.
"Revolution's" mix of choreography, contrasting modern dance and street-style performance that incorporates hip-hop, step, acrobatic moves and Cirque du Soleil-style aerial stunts, forms an energetic, constantly shifting mosaic. Several major set pieces, including the opening downtown Miami sequence centering around a parade of low-riders, help anchor significant plot developments, even if they add little narrative impetus.
By now, however, 3-D dance performances are routine for the genre and with the exception of a few notable aerial tricks, "Revolution" doesn't offer many stylistic innovations, although the soundtrack featuring performances by Far East Movement (with an assist from Justin Bieber), M.I.A., M83, Diplo, Timbaland and J-Lo, is appropriately propulsive.
"Step Up Revolution," a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 for some suggestive dancing and language. Running time: 97 minutes.