Aside from having one of the most delightfully gaudy titles given to any sequel in recent years, there's primarily one way that Step Up 2 The Streets improves upon 2006's Step Up: significantly better dance numbers. I was going at first to write "good dance numbers," but that seemed needlessly harsh to the first film, which does after all have at least a couple good scenes. But replacing Anne Fletcher's proficiently slack choreography with significantly better work by Dave Scott (Stomp the Yard), Hi-Hat* (How She Move) and Jamal Sims (Step Up, but let's not hold that against him. Wait; also Garfield. Okay, hold that against him) is all it takes to make the sequel better than the original.

Then, there's primarily one way that Step Up 2 falls far short of its predecessor, and it's not something that the original Step Up could really boast about in the first place: if the story of the first movie was derivative and robotic, the sequel contains enough contrived melodrama to make D.W. Griffith look askance, and utilitarian dialogue that leaves the actors sounding like those plot-recapping radio announcers from terrible sci-fi movies in the '50s.

According to that theory of genre films which holds it better to do the important things right than to do the incidental things poorly, a dance movie needs great dancing more than it needs a compelling plot to whisk us from dance to dance. By this yardstick - the one I shall use - Step Up 2 is the superior work in the franchise so far. This is not the same thing as being a particularly decent movie, but it's very hard to argue that the dancing falls short, which means that the film at least justifies its own existence. The film does itself a big favor by putting the two best dances in the film at the beginning and the end, so that we get pumped up right away and leave the theater with a very favorable last impression; this seemingly self-evident bit of wisdom is lost on most entries in the genre, though they are as rote as Step Up or as comparatively successful as How She Move. Generally, the dancing is a bit more demanding than it was in the first film as well, proving for example that the star of that film, Channing Tatum in a rather well-executed cameo), actually can dance really damn well. It's grittier and tougher than before, shot with a bit more attention to the dancer's movements than their sex appeal, and it keeps the plot at bay more often than not. It's an ideal movie for the chapter-forward button on your DVD remote in that sense.

In truth, the plot isn't so terribly melodramatic as I made it out to be (and who doesn't secretly like melodrama anyway?) as it is very thoughtless. Besides the main through-line, none of the plot points it sows are ever paid off; each scene exists almost solely to lead into the next scene, and so all sorts of possibly interesting character conflicts are swept away like dead insect husks. That main through line, by the way, is the sad tale of Andie (Briana Evigan), a orphaned white teen living in Baltimore with her mother's black friend, getting into trouble with the local avant-garde street dancers 410. As the film begins, things are so bad that she is about to be shipped off to Texas, if she can't prove herself in one last chance at the Maryland School of the Arts, where she meets the star pupil and hellraiser Chase Collins (Robert Hoffman, a miniature, less-charismatic Jay Mohr), who is taken by her urban dance style, and just like last time, the two combine classic and step dancing to prove to everybody that hdfhaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

I fell asleep on my keyboard, there. Recapping the plot was almost as boring as sitting through it. Sorry.

That reliable old stock tale is not given any kind of workout, and it's surrounded by a whole lot of dross that you'd think would add flavor, but just ends up a bit distracting, and the film ends with a shocking number of forgotten loose ends for a teen picture. Most of these involve the colorful supporting characters, none of whom are very memorable except for East Coast Old Money Name, who prefers to be called Moose, a dancing nerd played by newcomer Adam Savani in a role that drifts from excruciating to endearing over the course of the film.

What really bothers me the most, and I feel like a pretentious tool for even bringing it up, but unlike Step Up, almost every moment of the plot here hinges on class and race struggle - the main conflict is that the carefully diverse band of MSA dancers wants to compete at The Streets, an underground competition held in the African-American neighborhood, but they are viewed as outsiders and poseurs - and the film runs as far as it can at every moment from actually exploring the ramifications of race and class. It was a problem in the first, a bigger problem here, and it reeks of the worst sanitising instincts of Disney, the studio that released the films. Yes, yes, inoffensive dance movies for teens and pre-teens, but the movie keeps calling attention to it through the lines it gives white characters versus the lines it gives minority characters, and it invariably chickens out. I don't know that it would have bothered me enough to even bring it up (it would have bothered me enough to notice, though), if not for the actress who plays Andie's guardian: Sonja Sohn, who plays Detective Greggs on HBO's The Wire. That unfortunate overlap with another Baltimore-set work that deals with those issues in every fiber of its being doesn't really hurt Step Up 2 (the show and the film can't have that much of a common audience), but it's a convenient reminder of how irresponsible the dance movie is being.

I'm trying to put more weight on the film than it can possibly stand. I know that. So let's ratchet back to the Land of Appropriate Criticisms: the leads are charming and they can dance well, but they are not very good actors; the plot is sloppy at best; the cinematography by Max Malkin is fairly gritty but in a very unimaginative way; the music numbers are well-directed and edited, but the rest is Film School 101 all the way. But hey, I'm not the target audience here. I didn't like the first one, I'm not a teenager, and I'm a middle-class white man. I guess I'm saying, why did you read this at all?

*Perpetuating my newfound crush on her work, and also informing me that her given name is Nadine Ruffin. I think I shall stick with Hi-Hat, if only because that sounds less like a sweet middle-aged lady in the payroll department of a insurance company.