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It's standard teen fare, but 'Step Up' can really move

Hollywood cranks out so many formula teen flicks that it's almost a shock to find one with a little snap, crackle, and pop. The dance musical ``Step Up" doesn't represent anything that hasn't been done a thousand times before, from the Mickey-and-Judy let's-put-on-a-show movies of the 1930s to the Disney Channel's ``High School Musical."

You don't care while you're watching it, though. Alive with infectious rhythm, likable characters, and slick dance moves, ``Step Up" gives clichés a good name.

It helps that star Channing Tatum is, in the words of the 20-something women fanning themselves behind me at the screening, ``Omigod. So. Hot." Tatum throws off a lot of charisma for an expressionless slab of muscle, and between this confection, his Duke Orsino in ``She's the Man," and the upcoming indie mean-streets drama ``A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," he's poised to break out.

Fine by me, since the kid can move. I can't figure out how he does it, though: Tatum looks as if they built him out of jumbo-size Legos, but he dances like he's made of ball-bearings.

He plays Tyler Gage , a no-hope white kid from Baltimore's Hamden slums who dodges his nasty foster parents and boosts cars with pal Mac (Damaine Radcliff ) and Mac's little brother Skinny (De'Shawn Washington ). The thug life beckons, but Tyler takes the rap when the trio break into a tony school for the arts one night; as punishment, he's assigned community service on the school's janitorial squad.

We've already seen him slink and drop on a dance floor, so it's no big surprise what comes next: Tyler gets a gander at ballet student Nora (Jenna Dewan ) and signs up to be her partner for the end-of-term showcase (her previous partner has sprained his ankle, the weenie). Can a kid who never finishes anything see this one through?

Will he gain the approval of the snooty school director (Rachel Griffiths , acting on autopilot)? Will Nora's frosty mother (Deirdre Lovejoy ) stop with the Ivy League applications already and let her daughter dance? Will the gangbanger and the priss make beautiful pliés together?

If you don't know the answers, you haven't seen 2001's ``Save the Last Dance," of which the new film is virtually a remake. Or you're either very young or very credulous and thus fall neatly into the movie's target demographic. Yet ``Step Up" has appeal beyond its crummy, obvious screenplay because joy in physical movement courses through every frame.

As befits a film directed by a choreographer -- Anne Fletcher , who worked on ``Bring It On," ``Ice Princess," and, uh, ``The 40-Year-Old Virgin" -- ``Step Up" finds dance everywhere: on the basketball court, in school hallways, walking down the streets. In one scene, Tyler hangs in the backyard with his foster-care sister (Alyson Stoner , one of the few kids to stand out in the ``Cheaper by the Dozen" mob); he throws a combination at her, just to see if the kid can do it, she throws it back, and suddenly they've got a lovely little number going on.

There's also a rousing group dance at a nightclub, and the final showcase is a bliss-inducing jam of massed bodies and hip-hop strings. The movie earns its high, and in the process the actors are lent believable heat. When they're standing still, Tatum mostly broods and Dewan flares her nostrils, but then they move in for the clinch and the girls in the back row just melt.

There are lessons to be learned, of course: hard ones by Tyler's street pals and romantic ones by the second-tier duo of R&B singer Mario and Drew Sidora (``White Chicks" ). Tyler has to decide how to pronounce ``piqué" before he can do one. The audience has to figure out why the leads are white when everyone else is black, and whether that should bother them.

All this is secondary to the curious pleasure of watching a large man dance with eerie suppleness and to the director's restless interest in how people move. Tatum's career seems set, but someone should give Fletcher a development deal, stat. If she can turn harmless summer junk like ``Step Up" into something special, imagine what she could do with a real movie.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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