For as unoriginal as it is, there’s something pleasantly wholesome about “Stomp the Yard.” The movie thinks it’s better than it is, but that misapprehension comes across as enthusiasm, not pretension. It’s a movie about people dancing. They dance a lot, and they dance well. It can almost get by on that alone.
Our hero is DJ (Columbus Short), an extremely talented dancer in the urban street style who leaves Los Angeles after a tragedy to attend college in Atlanta. Working part-time for his uncle Nate (Harry J. Lennix) as a campus groundskeeper, DJ just wants to forget about dancing and focus on his studies. Well, OK, and also on wooing April (Meagan Good), a beautiful fellow student who catches his eye as soon as he arrives.
But as fate and contrived screenplays would have it, April is the girlfriend of a jerk named Grant (Darrin Henson), and Grant is part of the Mu Gamma Xi fraternity, which has taken the national stepping championship for the last several years. (Stepping, if you’re not aware — and I confess complete ignorance on the subject until seeing “Stomp the Yard” — is an African-American style of energetic dancing that looks to these untrained eyes like a combination of tap dancing, drill team, and popping.) DJ has already run afoul of Grant’s crew for other reasons, and now he’s after Grant’s woman, too.
The Mu Gamma Xis become aware of DJ’s dancing prowess after he is forced to prove himself at a local club one night, and they try to recruit him. But he is resistant, joining their chief rivals, Theta Nu Theta (TNT!), instead, after realizing that a fraternity can be so much more than just keg parties and dance competitions. Why, it can be a lifelong brotherhood!
It can also be a chance to win the girl, show up those snooty Mu Gamma Xis, and help TNT succeed by introducing street moves into the team’s stepping routine.
Every single element of Robert Adetuyi’s screenplay (a reworking of a previous draft by Gregory Ramon Anderson) is a cliche, and it goes off on a few useless tangents. It’s fine that April’s dad would prefer she date the well-connected law student Grant over the wrong-side-of-the-tracks DJ, but does her dad need to have a decades-old grudge against Uncle Nate, too? And why shoehorn a trumped-up ethics charge against DJ into the story? Sure, it gets him suspended. But no one really thinks he’s going to stay suspended and miss the climactic national championship dance-off, do they? Give us a little credit here.
There’s also the matter of one of Grant’s goons secretly filming DJ in rehearsal in order to steal his moves — and the fact that the scheme is never mentioned again. Maybe we’re supposed to notice DJ’s moves appearing in Grant’s routine later on and I’m just not observant enough.
I gotta tell you, though: I kind of like the movie. Columbus Short (seen recently on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), in addition to being a phenomenal dancer, is handsome and charismatic. He appears to have the acting chops necessary to carry a more substantial film, if he’s given the chance. Nothing about this movie is particularly compelling, yet he makes it OK, in that you’d-watch-it-if-it-were-on-cable kind of way.
And the dancing! Choreographed by Dave Scott (“You Got Served”) and Jesus Maldonado, the film’s many, many, many dance sequences are exuberant and flashy. Even when the final dance-off ends in a tie — an obvious ploy to give the movie an excuse to have another round — I don’t care, because the dancing is a joy to watch. Heck, have two more ties and three more run-offs! At least when they’re dancing you can forget about the silliness of the plot.
Director Sylvain White films the first couple numbers in a rough, jittery style (it’s set in the ‘hood, so it’s “gritty,” you know?), and then he calms down and delivers the goods in a much more straightforward and easy-to-watch fashion. It’s not a great movie, no, and maybe not even a particularly good one. But it’s likable and unassuming, and the dancing is off the hook, or whatever the kids are saying these days.
B- (1 hr., 54 min.; )