There are, of course, a great many movies where a woman who is obviously beautiful is supposed to be unattractive because she has her hair up and glasses, but it's rare to see the male version of that. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that in the first Step Up that Channing Tatum is supposed to be an uncouth street ruffian – at least until a prim ballerina teaches him the importance of dance. Since he has his head shaved throughout the film he doesn't have to let his hair down, but he does have to stop wearing his baseball cap backwards for his true gentleness to come through.
The same way that Denise Richards was not a plausible scientist in the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough, Tatum is not a believable thug in this movie. He's supposed to be living in foster care, but his eyes don't betray a deep anger and his posture is never slumped. The movie's language is toned down for a lower rating – people say “bull” instead of “bullshit” - and while some of the actors struggle to make that sound plausible Tatum always comes across as the sort of guy who says “ma'am” when he meets an elderly lady so it makes sense coming out of his mouth. He's dressed like Eminem in several scenes, but Eminem has an innate belligerence that Tatum completely lacks.
I suppose that I would find his performance more endearing if the movie didn't strike me as deeply racist. Whatever silliness is a byproduct of his clear non-thuggishness is mitigated by the fact that the plot of this movie is basically “white guy has to learn to stop hanging out with black people and learn to hang out with white people.” As the movie begins all of his close friends are black, and they're also all involved in stealing cars. Once he begins to dance with our heroine he meets one new black friend – a musician who makes the beats for the dances – so I'm sure that a defender of this movie would point out that the movie isn't saying that all black people are thugs, but the fact remains that his character arc is to go from a guy immersed in black culture to a guy who is immersed in white culture. If he's going to evolve he has to leave behind “the streets” and we all know what “the streets” means.
These sorts of teen dramas always take a default template and then layer their own specific details on top of them. True to form, at first he doesn't know how to dance properly, but she dances too rigidly, and then they learn to dance together, but then he has to quit right before the big performance, which is a real shame because they had great chemistry together and also she could maybe get a big dance contract if she nails her big number. The problem is that the specific details that they added to the formula aren't compelling at best and are insulting at worst. I'm sure there are some people who can appreciate this movie for it's pleasant enough dance numbers, but that isn't nearly enough to cover up the rest of it's flaws for me.
Winner: The Cat