Commuters on a crowded subway train are startled when a gang of masked youths spring out of nowhere. But rather than rob the passengers, Andie West (Briana Evigan) and fellow members of the 410 street crew dazzle them with their dance moves. Caught on video this guerilla dance prank goes viral, announcing the 410 will be competing in a hi-octane urban dance contest called “The Streets.” When Andie’s foster mother catches her antics on the evening news described as a public nuisance, she threatens to pack her off to live with relatives in Texas. Luckily, Andie’s former foster brother Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) is back in town and has an idea to help sort her life out. He proposes she audition for a place at the Maryland School of the Arts. When Andie proves skeptical, Tyler brings her round by trouncing her in a dance-off.
Original Step Up (2006) star Channing Tatum only appears in a fleeting though significant cameo in this sequel before spirited new star Briana Evigan takes the spotlight. At first glance Step Up 2: The Streets seems set to recycle the first film’s, already flimsy, plot with new girl Andie pretty much in the Tyler Gage mould: a rough diamond in need of smoothing. Her audition wows hunky dance student Chase Collins (Robert Hoffman, not to be confused with the Euro-cult star of the same name) though his ballet Nazi brother Blake (Will Kemp), who also happens to be the school’s new director, is less impressed. Predictably, sparks fly between Andie and Chase while she finds herself torn between the 410 (who are, like, for real, y’know?) and the more refined, slightly poncy, upwardly mobile world of classical dance.
After the set-up though, screenwriters Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna move onto fresher territory, flipping the concept underlining the first film on its head. Instead of an outsider entering the dance school, this has the students taking their dance philosophy out onto the streets. Fresh from touring with the Royal Ballet, Blake’s conservative changes to the school curriculum alienate a lot of its individualistic students. In response, Andie and Chase put together a sort of Dirty Dozen dance troop drawn from misfit kids around school including future Glee star Harry Shum Jr and Adam G. Sevani as the geeky but gifted Moose, both of whom returned for the next sequel Step Up 3D (2010). Their first attempt to court the urban hip-hop crowd ends in disaster as they are booed off the stage and Chase gets beaten up in retaliation for an earlier YouTube prank on the 410.
While the first Step Up ran with the theme of dance being a way out for disadvantaged youth, the sequel posits dance as a way of life on the street and only a step away from urban warfare. Although stylized in that MTV fashion that softens the message, the dance-offs are like street brawls. Ruthless 410 boss Tuck (Black Thomas) runs his crew like an armed militia. If all this sounds rather ridiculous, well it is but yet again the dance sequences are mounted with such style and verve the end result is remarkably persuasive despite the drama proving even more anaemic than the first film and the script’s insistence on adhering to “authentic” street speak yielding less than profound dialogue.
Jon M. Chu, whose eclectic career includes Disney’s first film in the Chinese language The Secret of the Magic Gourd (2007), hit concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011) and G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), draws on the then-recent flash mob phenomenon and YouTube dance videos to craft an array of sizzling set-pieces showcasing a variety of dance styles. Especially impressive is the climactic rain-soaked dance-off with Andie and co. socking it to the 410 with glow-sticks a-go-go. Such scenes are the real raison d’etre of the Step Up series and speak more eloquently of the film’s themes (family, free expression versus conformity, promoting understanding between different cultural and social divides) than the tepid script. Briana Evigan is a personable lead and alongside her talented co-stars proves an energetic, more than capable dancer. In fact her booty shakes so frenetically you’d swear she had springs in her butt. If the film seems cheesy in parts it is only because it is so achingly sincere and, for all its flaws, there remains something quite charming about that.