The “Step Up” franchise can be one of the most frustrating series in movies today — each film offers up transcendent moments featuring some truly electrifying dancing, but to get to those golden nuggets you have to sift through mounds of terrible writing and laughable acting.
Even if you’ve resigned yourself to that trade-off, “Step Up All In,” the fifth chapter of this ongoing saga, doesn’t rank among the best of these. The choreography falls short of the heights of “Step Up 2: The Streets” and “Step Up 3D,” and the plot isn’t as goofily engaging as that of “Step Up Revolution.” If it’s a champion in any category — and I had arguments about this with the rest of my viewing party, “Step Up” connoisseurs all — cinematographer Brian Pearson (“Into the Storm”) uses 3-D in the dance sequences better than any of his series predecessors.
The plot, such as it is: Six months after the climactic events of “Step Up Revolution,” in which Miami dancers The Mob came to Los Angeles to shoot a Nike commercial, the crew is dispirited by one go-nowhere audition after another. They all decide to pack it in and go home, except for Sean (square-jawed, blank-eyed Ryan Guzman, “Pretty Little Liars”), who’s determined to make it in Hollywood and who feels betrayed by the abandonment of his friends, particularly BFF Eddy (Misha Gabriel).
Needing work, Sean takes a job in a dance studio run by the elderly grandparents of Moose (Adam Sevani). When VH1 host Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko) announces a reality TV contest to find the best dance crew — with the winners getting a three-year gig in Las Vegas — Sean decides to assemble a new cadre of dancers.
Moose, as a “Step Up” veteran, rounds up performers from the previous movies, including Andie (Briana Evigan, “Step Up 2: The Streets”), who immediately clashes with Sean over who’s running things. Once this new crew — dubbed “LMNTRIX” — makes it to Vegas, however, they find themselves facing off with not just the villainous Grim Knights but also The Mob.
Along the way, screenwriter John Swetnam (also from “Into the Storm”) manages to pack his script with the most handy contrivances, forced misunderstandings, and character-180s this side of “A Madea Christmas.” One could argue that the “Step Up” movies are following in the footsteps of the “Fast and Furious” franchise by throwing all of its characters together and wisely eschewing plot and character in favor of what people really came to see. That’s a good start, but “Step Up All In” makes the dialogue and storytelling from, say, “Fast 6” seem like Noël Coward by comparison.
Once the dancing happens, however, it’s easy to overlook the film’s flaws, although choreographers Jamal Sims, Christopher Scott, and Dondraico Johnson have a tendency to lean toward jerky (albeit gymnastic) movement rather allow for smooth flow. Even if the big numbers in “Step Up All In” don’t always hit the heights of its immediate predecessors, there are enough exultant moments — during the crew battles or Sean and Andie’s pas de deux on a carnival ride — to tide you over until the inevitable Part Six.
It’s just too bad that the paths to the film’s predictable outcome and character couplings — hey, executive producer Adam Shankman, five movies and not a single gay dancer, incidentally? — are so clumsy and the performances so eyeroll-inducing.
Here’s hoping the script for the next sequel merely reads, “They dance. Then they dance some more. Then everybody dances a lot. The End.”