When producers of the Step Up franchise first announced that the third chapter in the urban dance saga would be filmed in 3D that increasingly gimmicky audience-baiting tool so popular these days in Hollywood reactions ranged from ambivalence to ridicule. I myself was rather skeptical having been subjected to my share of hastily produced 3D monstrosities a la The Last Airbender. But after watching the film I must concede that the trendy format actually acquits itself reasonably well in Step Up 3D. I only wish I could speak the same about the film's more traditional cinematic components like plot dialogue and acting.
Indeed it’s puzzling why director Jon Chu even bothered to include them. Even more so than its predecessor Step Up 2: The Streets Step Up 3D is fashioned almost purely as a showcase for its talented ensemble of dancers who shake and shimy their way through a variety of elaborate routines and to a pulsing soundtrack of over 50 different songs. In between the dance numbers all of which are genuinely impressive Chu strains awkwardly to maintain the pretense of Step Up 3D being an actual movie and not simply the extended music video we all know it to be. When the music stops the film flounders.
The storyline which marries extraordinary dancing with extraordinarily bad acting involves Step Up 2 holdover Moose (Adam Sevani) joining a team of dancers in their quest to save The Vault a vast New York City loft where dance-loving refugees from the street can practice their craft without having to worry about being harassed by cops the traditional enemies of the urban arts. Its idealistic founder Luke (Rick Malambri) is behind on his mortgage payments and the only way to earn enough money to avoid foreclosure is for the Pirates (as The Vault’s collection of dancers are known) to win a series of quasi-underground “battles ” in which different crews are pitted against each other in loser-goes-home dance duels.
How are these battles judged? What are the rules? I have no idea but compulsory elements appear to include lots of aggressive gesticulating toward the camera lens several menacing glances and at least one acrobatic maneuver followed by a provocative gesture -- e.g. a triple backflip with a double crotch-grab. Step Up 3D certainly doesn’t waste any time on such trivial questions not when there are inane subplots to resolve: Moose is struggling to balance his love of dance with busy life as a freshman at NYU and his best friend Camille (Alyson Stoner) is feeling neglected; Luke is hesitant to follow his dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker; sultry newcomer (Sharni Vinson) is torn between conflicting loyalties to her old family at home and her new one at the vault; and some vindictive prettyboy named Julien (Joe Slaughter) from a rival crew is conspiring to bring them all down.
Who will prevail? Eventually it all comes down to Step Up 3D’s climactic Final Battle. By that time however the war between music video and ensemble drama has already reduced it to rubble.
Beginning in 1992 after L.A.'s Rodney King riots a reformed ex-convict named Tommy Johnson needing a job grabbed a boom box some face paint and a clown suit. Bizarre yes. But he started a successful kids' party business dancing in the riot-ravaged areas. Before he knew it Johnson--who named himself Tommy the Clown--started a ghetto-wide trend of "clowning " and later "krumping " both characterized by quick sudden dance moves. Rize is about more than just Tommy the Clown of course. It's about race and oppression in America and the therapeutic effect of dance throughout the centuries. The film attempts to channel the human spirit through physical expression as the real-life faces give Rize extra needed impact to the oppressive story--one unfortunately that is all too familiar.
The real-life street dancers infuse the documentary. They are essentially characters with alter-ego names like Dragon Miss Prissy and El Nino. Decorated in face paint they are average real South L.A. "hood" residents with average jobs. Larry for example still works at Abercrombie & Fitch. But boy they can dance. LaChapelle's visual storytelling elevates them to iconic actor-like character status. More gravely however the dancers' belonging to clown or krump crews often substitute gang affiliation in the bombed-out neighborhoods. Rize works because of its "acting " the vibrancy and timelessness of its characters' spirits.
Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson's good friend David LaChapelle directs his first feature after he released a similar short film Krumped last year. His celebrity portraits have graced Vanity Fair and Interview magazines since the '80s. We last saw LaChapelle on the police blotter in January getting arrested for disorderly conduct. Utah police allege LaChapelle who was partying with Hilton and Anderson at Sundance where Rize premiered became physically and verbally abusive when separated from the starlets. The case isn't settled yet. But in light of these charges it could be LaChapelle's ability to bull his way through filming glossing over themes quickly that gives Rize its broad-brush impact. LaChapelle offers a different documentary in the post-Michael Moore era--one without a political point of view or wry scrutiny of shady characters. Instead LaChapelle (who apprenticed under Andy Warhol) sees himself more as an artist. With Rize he's molded an artistic topical statement a timely bull's eye of hip-hop and Blue State progressivism. The filmmaker trains the audience's eye quickly to become hypnotized in the dancers' bodies and to seek higher meaning.