Dir: Jon Chu. US. 2008. 98mins
A fresh slate of young performers, combined with energetically staged and photographed sequences that convey the cathartic joy of dance, easily outweigh some of the more predictable rhythms of formulaic storytelling in Step Up 2 the Streets, a fun, flirty and engaging teen drama and stand-alone sequel that serves as the latest entry in a line of pan-ethnic dance films pitched chiefly at teens and big-city twentysomethings.

In August of 2006, Step Up, the $12 million directorial debut of choreographer Anne Fletcher, used a deft, direct-appeal marketing campaign that included a MySpace.com contest which let users submit their own dance videos to ring up a surprising $20.6 opening weekend, part of a $114 million worldwide gross that included just under $49 million in international receipts. The movie was just the latest underdog hit in a consistently viable new subgenre; 2001's Save the Last Dance kickstarted the nascent trend, catching fire with a $23 million domestic opening en route to over $130 million in cumulative receipts.

The more aggressively urbanized You Got Served danced its way to $40 million Stateside in 2004, while Stomp the Yard opened to $21 million en route to a $61 million domestic gross in last year's first quarter. Similarly devoted opening weekend turnout and enthusiastic word-of-mouth should drive solid and sustained eight-figure theatrical receipts, and Step Up 2 the Streets should dance off with considerable ancillary market.and international profits as well, given the repeat-play value that results as a function of the universality of its story and the quality of its execution.

Delivering a gender inversion of the same loose, wrong-side-of-the-tracks narrative of the first film, the story centers on rebellious, teenage street dancer Andie (Briana Evigan), a Baltimore-bred orphan on the brink of being sent by her deceased mother's friend to live with her aunt in Texas - a fate akin to permanent exile. Given the opportunity of an audition at the prestigious but vey proper Maryland School of the Arts, the street-wise Andie improbably wins a spot.

Her unique talent, as well as her attractiveness, catches the attention of the school's hottest dancer and reigning big man on campus, Chase (Robert Hoffman), whose older brother Blake (Will Kemp), a legendary ballet performer in his own right, has returned to lead the school and oversee its artistic re-shaping. Andie is caught up between two worlds, and the different rules and expectations that go with each. So when her old friends abandon her, she joins forces with Chase and a new posse of classmate outcasts and unconventional types to form a crew to compete in Baltimore's big underground dance battle, The Streets.

One of the movie's great successes is the sense of scale apportioned its conflicts. Like Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile, actually, Step Up 2 the Streets assays urban tension and class/race conflict without needlessly getting into gunplay and all the distasteful and/or stereotypically overwrought chest-thumping that often stems from that. Just as that former film - a slightly recontextualized biopic about rapper Eminem's rise from gritty Detroit - featured fisticuffs and a scene with paintball guns which served to define the ceiling of acceptable violence within the characters' world, so too does Step Up 2 the Streets.

When Chase and Andie's new crew crosses her old gang with a prank they post on the Internet, retribution takes the form of vandalism, a 'simple' but brief assault by fist and, inevitably, feverish dancing competition, all in equal measure. This careful modulation lends credence to the notion of dance as an expression of (adolescent, not just underclass) frustration, an important underpinning of the story.

Step Up 2 the Streets is the feature directorial debut of USC Film School graduate Jon Chu, and he locates the exuberance and thrill of personal expression in capturing its dance sequences. If there's a knock, it's that several of these dance-feud and performance set pieces - particularly a climactic group showcase that moves from a crowded, warehouse-style dance club outdoors, into the rain - come across as too tightly choreographed to be truly improvised, and thus undercut some of the loose-limbed energy present in other sequences.

A lot of the screenplay's dialogue, by writers Tori Ann Johnson and Karen Barna, is of the boilerplate variety, but the cast evidences a warm rapport that masks much of its awkwardness. Both Evigan and Hoffman, in particular, make strong, winning impressions. It certainly helps that Chu places an obvious value on low-key, natural charm. By allowing the characters' personalities to come forward a bit more incrementally than usual for such teen-pitched product, one's identification with their plights, respective and shared, evolves more naturally. Only a few scenes of artificial headbutting between Andie and her surrogate guardian ring false or strident.

An energetic soundtrack also benefits Step Up 2 the Streets. The film's music, by Aaron Zigman, who was composer on the original Step Up and collaborated with hip-hop artist Swizz Beatz on mashed-up tunes for fellow dance flick Take the Lead, superbly sets the mood for many a scene.

Production companies
Offspring Entertainment (US)
Summit Entertainment (US)
Touchstone Pictures (US)

U.S. distribution
Touchstone Pictures/Disney Films

Erik Feig
Jennifer Gibgot
Adam Shankman
Patrick Wachsberger

Executive producers
Anne Fletcher
Bob Hayward
Meredith Milton
David Nicksay

Screenplay by
Tori Ann Johnson and Karen Barna
based on characters created by Duane Adler

Max Malkin

Production designer
Devorah Herbert

Andrew Marcus

Aaron Zigman

Art director
Paul D. Kelly

Jamal Sims
Dave Scott

Main cast
Briana Evigan
Robert Hoffman
Adam G. Sevani
Danielle Polanco
Will Kemp
Luis Salgado
Black Thomas
Telisha Shaw
Harry Shum, Jr.
Mari Koda