From the moment the credits roll, you can tell Stomp the Yard is determined to prove that it isn't just another dance movie churned out for 13-year-old girls with nothing better to do on MLK day. In a decrepit, Thunderdome-like warehouse, a bunch of multiracial thugs gather together to throw down on a dance floor that's so rickety, the camera shakes every time they hit the floor. A demented clown oversees the proceedings, nu-metal blasts through the speakers these guys are so hardcore, they don't even dance to hip hop! and the distorted, fisheye-lens close-ups make everyone look like they're in a carnival freak show.
But for all of director Sylvain White's efforts, Stomp the Yard really looks about as hip as an old Busta Rhymes video. Come to think of it, it's a surprise Busta isn't in the movie somewhere, playing a guidance counselor or drug dealer or something. Instead we get a succession of flat, lifeless actors going through the usual soap opera paces that accompany your standard teen dance movie.
The plot is a carbon copy of 2002's superior marching-band flick Drumline. Stomp charts the evolution of chip-on-his-shoulder teen D.J. (Columbus Short) from being just another juvenile delinquent with mad freestyle skills to becoming a frat boy devoted to the tradition and art of "steppin'." Transplanted from his toxic L.A. environs to the fictional all-black Truth University in Atlanta, D.J. is at first put off by his upwardly mobile classmates; that is, until he glimpses the kewpie doll-like April (Meagan Good) on the arm of evil frat brother Grant (Darrin Henson). Learning to take his aggressions out on the dance floor instead of the streets, D.J. joins a rival frat in the hopes of dethroning Grant and his crew at the National Step Championships.
What these guys do on the dance floor is spectacular; their syncopated moves are so fast and furious, they're almost beyond rhythm. But White doesn't hold his shots long enough for you to get a good look at the dancers until the finale, when their Thriller-like outfits (complete with yellow werewolf-eye contacts) are unintentionally hilarious. The rest of this overlong film is too short on dancing and too heavy on bad dialogue like "I don't step, I battle!" And there's something oddly gay about the dancing "boot camp" montage that features D.J. and his devoted brothers practicing their moves from the crack of dawn until dusk, when they take their shirts off and chant at the sunset.
When things settle down and focus on the moony romance at the heart of the film, it's surprisingly touching. Short may be a great dancer, but he's not much of an actor: His idea of conveying anger is to fix his face in a permanent scowl. But when he's playing a scene opposite the cute, convincing Good, he lightens up and starts to show some range. The two have genuine chemistry together, and you dread the predictable plot twists that will keep them apart. Here's hoping they have agents good enough to get them out of bland teen movies like Stomp the Yard and into some decent romantic comedies.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.