Providing you're not hip-hop- or cliche-averse, see "Step Up 2 the Streets" with the right expectations and you'll be pleasantly surprised. It's just as cornball as "Step Up" (2006), but it's more fun -- more of a full-on dance musical, its plot a mere slip of a thing designed to whisk you to the next excuse for another choreographic and ab-centric display.
The film glides from the Baltimore subway to the classrooms of the Maryland School of the Arts (think "Fame," if you must) to a backyard salsa dance to the climactic, rain-soaked street dance competition, all hot lights and triumph. The film occasionally talks tough -- "This ain't 'High School Musical'!" disses the roving DJ when our heroine and her misfit cohorts come up short in their first street effort. But really, it pretty much is "High School Musical," with a rough edge or two.
In place of "Step Up's" sullen white boy learning to adapt his moves while wowing the conservatory crowd, "Step Up 2 the Streets" features strapping Briana Evigan as Andie, a sullen white girl who learns to adapt her moves while wowing the conservatory crowd. If Andie can make it at the arts school, while partnering with golden boy Chase (Robert Hoffman), she can make it anywhere. Andie's street crew, meanwhile, doesn't like this new, snooty version of the girl they knew. The multiethnic "410" gang, known for its prankish hit-and-run choreographic dazzle on subways and the like, needs all the bodies it can get to compete in "The Streets," a battle of the hip-hop all-stars.
Not that anyone goes to these things for the acting, but Evigan is easy company and a considerable jump up from the first film's leads. The way Andie's written, she's all defensive sarcasm. (Andie's guardian, played by Sonja Sohn of "The Wire," can't control the dancing fool and threatens to ship her off to Texas.) But Evigan doesn't force the snark, or the melodrama. Her voice strikingly like Demi Moore's, Evigan serves as director Jon M. Chu's primary camera subject in repose or on the move.
The choreography draws on break-dancing, hip-hop, salsa and more, and while too much of it's sliced up into the usual teeny pieces on screen, well . . . the kids allegedly like it like that. (The recent and very good "How She Move" was a rare exception to the general rule, with the dancers showing off their wares in longer-than-usual takes.)
Chu shoots the movie every which way, heavy on the extreme telephoto imagery (for "maximum realism," or something), but clearly he loves his performers. Human-spirit cliches and all, the movie accomplishes job one: It moves. It also has a choice soundtrack, spiced by the likes of Missy Elliott's "Shake Your Pom Pom" and Digital Underground's immortal "Humpty Dance." The best of "Step Up 2" really does smell like teen spirit, even if many of its performers have been out of school for a while.
"Step Up 2 the Streets." MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, some suggestive material, and brief violence). Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In general release.