Step Up, the 2006 blockbuster starring Channing Tatum, is a movie made for 13-year-old girls with no cultural history. The plot is as old as film itself: Tatum's Tyler, a "bad boy" from the wrong side of Baltimore who spends his days stealing cars and shooting hoops, gets caught by the police and is forced to do his community service in the Fine Arts High School. Surprise! Tyler is an excellent dancer and falls for a classically trained dancer from a higher social class (Jenna Dewan).
As a movie, Step Up is riddled with massive plot holes, almost completely separated from any recognizable reality, but surprisingly fun to watch. Unlike other Hollywood boy-meets-girl-dance-binds-them-together movies (cough, Flashdance), Dewan and Tatum—who met on set and later married—do their own dancing and are truly a joy to watch.
Despite playing the hunk-man in She's the Man earlier in 2006, Step Up is really considered Channing Tatum's breakthrough role. But when I looked back at some early reviews of Step Up—written on its release date 10 years ago today—critics weren't exactly predicting Tatum's eventual world takeover.
The biggest flaw of Step Up is that it requires you to suspend rational thought in order to buy into the standard Hollywood plot that it's selling. For example, Tatum's character is given community service in an arts high school, but then he is allowed to take place in a school-sanctioned project despite not being an enrolled student.
But as Jeannette Catsoulis wrote for the New York Times, there's a reason this storyline comes back over and over again, and it is that teenage girls love hotties:
Ever since Kevin Bacon’s rebellious hips ignited a small-town uproar in Footloose, the modern high school romance has placed a premium on rhythm. In the typical scenario, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks woos a socially superior girl, his only assets a killer smile and a limber pelvis. The story is as old as Mickey Rooney but its appeal is eternal, and Step Up cleaves to the template with significantly more rigor than originality.
The greatest strength of Step Up, as Joe Leydon noted for Variety, is its casting. Not only does Tatum play the hunk, but Dewan really works as the lead girl, and the movie cast R&B singer Mario as one of the talented teens in the high school. "The well-cast leads are more than appealing enough to encourage a rooting interest," Leydon wrote. "Better still, they obviously do their own dancing, and do it very well."
Unlike some critics, Leydon liked Tatum's acting performance in Step Up:
As Tyler, Tatum (who, unfortunately, bears a slight resemblance to Vanilla Ice in some scenes) goes beyond traditional sensitive-hunkiness to convey streetwise humor and affecting shadings of pathos. Dewan is credible and creditable while running the gamut from steely determination to tremulous vulnerability.
…though he did compare America's future heartthrob to Vanilla Ice.
Not everyone, though, was so impressed with Tatum and Dewan's performances. Scott Bowles for USA Today claimed that the emotional center of the film (Tatum's struggle to find himself and to find footing in a new life) missed the mark entirely.
Step Up dips from the well that seems to feed all Hollywood dance films: forbidden love between a roughneck boy and a repressed girl, drawn together by their common desire to shake their rumps. And there's nothing wrong with that template, as long as you have actors who can both cut a rug and shed a tear. But our young heroes seem capable only of the former.
And he wasn't the only critic who felt that way. Jessica Reaves at the Los Angeles Times wrote that Step Up could be called "Dirty Dancing Without the Pesky Morality Lesson," or "Footloose Without the Uptight Minister." Even "Flashdance Without the Welding Mask works pretty well." She went on to argue that the biggest flaw in the movie is Tatum's inability to act.
Tatum and Dewan have a fine chemistry; Dewan seems to be a pretty good dancer and acquits herself respectably during the scenes that require 'acting.' Tatum, on the other hand, whose strongest asset appears to be his chiseled physique, doesn't seem to be acting so much as regurgitating, and he can be very difficult to understand.
This is 100% a fair critique. Upon re-watching the movie yesterday, I had to put subtitles on to understand the words squeaking out of the side of Tatum's mouth.
It's difficult to separate criticism that stems directly from the movie itself and that which stems from a dislike of the people who consumed that movie—notably, teen girls. Kyle Smith of the New York Post wrote that, "Step Up is so predictable, with every scene loudly announcing what the next one is going to show, that teens in the audience will take lots of breaks to text each other on their phones." But contrary to what Smith seemed to believe, teenage girls definitely would have picked up on the same plot holes that he found:
Step Up asks us to believe that a girl would dump a guy who just scored a record deal. That ghetto car thieves say things like, 'You must have all the recessive genes in the family.' And that a ballerina would design a dance number in which the guy gets as much attention as she does.
Even Smith had to concede that "the blocky Tatum (ears by Prince Charles, facial expressions by Rocky Balboa) is likeable enough."
Ultimately, critics were far harsher on Step Up than audiences were. Step Up has a 43 out of 100 on Metacritic and only an 18% score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. But both sites report that more than 75% of audience members liked the movie. It's pretty obvious why:
First Reviews is a series that finds and evaluates early reviews of now-popular and well-respected artists.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.