If only Step Up: All In didn't have to have any plot. The fifth entry in the popular dance-off franchise is, like the others, a fantasia that upends the usual rules of filmmaking. Here, the more threadbare the scenario, and the more unmotivated an action, the better. Character and story just get in the way of all the awesome dancing.
The film starts off on the right foot, with a montage of different dancers trying out at commercial auditions. "There’s a magic that happens when you dance," our hero Sean (Ryan Guzman) earnestly tells us in voice-over. “The world is in synch, and for one perfect moment, you feel totally alive.” His words are undercut, however, by the sight of various dancers trying to incorporate "the product" (a roll of toilet paper, a garden hose, a rake) into their routines. Dancing is great and all, but professionals have to make money, and Sean and his crew the Mob are hard up for work in Los Angeles, hitting the audition circuit and humiliating themselves day in and day out by donning things like mariachi outfits and dancing around with gardening tools. But now, they’re losing gigs (and one pretty awesome bar dance-off) to smack-talking punk Jasper Tarik (Stephen Jones) and his crew, the Grim Knights.
Distraught, the Mob abandons Sean, and it seems his dreams have finally been shattered. But then he discovers an elaborate Vegas dance competition called the Vortex, being organized by VH1. He has to assemble a new crew to compete, so he calls on his old friend Moose (Adam Sevani, the real hero of this series), who has since gone legit and now works at an engineering lab. But soon enough, they’ve gathered a crew from across the country that consists of previous Step Up all-stars: Hair (Chris Scott), Vladd (Chad Smith), Monster (Luis Rosado), and Jenny Kido (Mari Koda). Chief among them is Step Up 2’s Andie West (Briana Evigan), soon to become a love interest for Sean. They call themselves LMNTRIX (pronounced “elementrix”) because vowels are for pussies. Much dancing ensues.
For its first half, Step Up: All In does a solid job dispensing with narrative fairly quickly and focusing on the dancing. (I’d try to name some of the dance moves, but I’d just sound even more like an old loser, so I won’t.) When Moose and Sean have to come up with a dance video to send in for the Vortex, they use Moose’s lab during a stray few hours when his boss is away. The spectacle they shoot is both ridiculous and ridiculously awesome — complete with mad scientists, monsters rising from the dead, and insane electrical currents. It’s a complete fantasy, and it expresses the ethos of these movies better than anything I can think of: Any attempt on the movie’s part to try to explain how they managed to pull it off would result in the whole thing collapsing like a house of cards.
The dancing itself is impressive, though it can’t match the crazed, stylized wonder that was Step Up 3D (which, with each passing year, seems like even more of a masterpiece). Director Trish Sie doesn’t necessarily try, though. She doesn’t even use the 3-D all that much, opting instead to step back and focus largely on functional wide shots that take in the whole performance. She has more of a choreographer’s eye than a director’s eye, it seems: She’s drawn to fluidity and pattern rather than composition and cinematic rhythm. That’s not the worst problem to have.
Once the Vortex starts for real, however, plot points that we didn’t even know were there start to reveal themselves. It doesn’t help that Ryan Guzman comes from the always-nod-when-you-speak school of acting, and that the film saddles him with not one but two back-to-back inspirational speeches. By the third act, we may find ourselves twiddling our thumbs waiting for the big dance finale to start. The good news, however, is that it eventually does. Whatever the other flaws, the dancing itself rarely seems to disappoint in these movies.