Sony // 2007 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 15th, 2007
Beyond the pride. Beyond the rivalry. Beyond the tradition.
After a post-dance battle tragedy almost destroys his life, DJ (Columbus Short, Save the Last Dance 2) is shipped off to Atlanta to live with his aunt and uncle. Thanks to a few pulled strings, he will also be attending the traditional black college Truth University. An instant outcast, DJ finds campus life confusing, especially the ongoing step wars between the high-minded members of Theta Nu Theta and the flamboyant fronters from Mu Gamma Xi. When the fraternities learn that this bad boy can move, they begin to recruit him. But DJ wants none of their scene. He is only interested in making time with hot honey April (Meagan Good, You Got Served). Turns out, she's the Dean's daughter, and the head of the school does not like his child going out with a transplanted West Coast thug. Eventually pledging Theta Nu, the Gammas decide to dig up some dirt on DJ, and hope to get him suspended before the big National Step Competition. But Theta needs the street-smart hoofer if they're even to have a hope of beating the seven-time champs. Otherwise, it will be their hated rivals who return to school and Stomp the Yard.
It's appropriate that Stomp the Yard is a film about the black college fraternity tradition known as stepping, since for every forward move this otherwise clichéd movie makes, it stumbles backwards into the stereotypical, the formulaic, and the cornball. For example, take director Sylvain White's dynamic, stylistic approach to the "dance" numbers. While there's still a bit too much of the overdone MTV-ish music video vibe present, he employs experimental shots and unusual camera techniques (slowed motion, overcranking) to give the sequences real energy and verve. On the other hand, there's the horribly hackneyed screenplay, a script overloaded with the standard sports/competition chestnuts amplified with a desire to see people served, to have contestants krunk, and to exploit every contrived plot premise a movie like this can contain. The repetitive elements do indeed come at you fast and furious -- disgruntled hood rat; a tragedy that may or may not be his fault; the arrival at a city (Atlanta) and a place (college) which don't fit his street cred; the high-maintenance babe he's instantly smitten with; the contrasting step teams who contain brains (the Pythons) or brawn (the Wolves); and the National tournament where, out of 25 potential pairings, the two frats we've been following for 90 minutes will end up duking it out -- old school vs. new jack city.
Oh, wait -- there's more. There's a crusty old dean who wants his daughter (who happens to be the aforementioned high-maintenance babe) to hook up with the glamorous law school leader of the Wolves. There's the even crustier uncle who spouts demands like he's recruiting for the Marines, and a suave professional aunt who can still cook up a mess of tasty fried chicken. We get the wannabe players that make up the crew surrounding DJ's roommate, and the semi-crusty frat president who will not allow modern moves to infiltrate his traditional set and stomp. Like little plastic players on one of those pre-video game vibrating metal football fields, the parts of this film are destined to dance around aimlessly, bob and weave, eventually ending up gathered together in that one corner called contrivance. If you can't predict what happens throughout the course of Stomp the Yard, if you aren't instantly aware that DJ's criminal past will come back to haunt him -- say, three days before the big competition -- if you don't anticipate that the reason the dean hates our hero has something to do with the boy's beleaguered relatives, then you just haven't been paying attention to the staples of cinema. This narrative is so by-the-numbers that it should be endorsed by the National Society of Statisticians.
Yet White and his cast almost make it work. His actors give it their all, and lead performer Columbus Short is excellent at breaking convention. Instead of being a sassy, thug-life punk (which is how he is portrayed in the beginning), he winds up being soft-spoken and quite thoughtful. Similarly, instead of overloading the soundtrack with every name rap and hip-hop artist burning up the charts, White utilizes the atmospheric, new age-ish work of Tim Boland and Sam Retzer. Reminiscent of shoegazer stalwarts like Hammock, the score is sensational in providing haunting heft and emotional gravitas. Sometimes, our director can make the derivative work. When our hero and his honey hit a hard spot in their road to real love, White allows the scenes to play out organically, never rushing through the blossoming romance to get to the money shot. But even in concert, the good cannot circumvent the triteness that Stomp the Yard demonstrates. Dialogue wavers wildly from engaging to embarrassing, while the brilliance of the dance sequences is substantially offset by the predetermined nature of the resolution. Had White simply walked away from every unoriginal element of this script, had he simply decided to follow a hard-working student trying to make his way through a traditional black university and the issues arriving from same, we'd have a wonderfully evocative film. As it stands, Stomp the Yard is pleasant, but way too predictable.
A sizable hit when it came to theaters this past January, Stomp the Yard is given a nice DVD presentation by Sony. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen image is possessed of way too many golds and grays (the better to contrast the light of education with the darkness of life on the street), but it still shimmers with a wonderfully ephemeral atmosphere. Contrasts are expertly controlled, and when White jacks up the stylistic strategies, the transfer responds in kind. As for the sonic situation, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is terrific. Dialogue is easily discernible and the showcase moments come alive with channel-challenging bombast.
As for extras, we are treated to a making-of featurette entitled "Battles, Rivals, Brothers." In essence, its 20 minutes of interviews explaining the premise, and the intense preparation required to pull off the complicated choreography. Next, there's a collection of deleted scenes and extended sequences. All but one (and there are only three) revolve around the opening dance battle showdown. But the best bonus is the full-length audio commentary with director White, along with David Checel (editor) and Scott Kevan (director of photography). For anyone curious about the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of making a movie, this detailed discussion will fulfill your filmmaking desires. All three men provide insight into their part in the production, and while a tad geeky at times (Lens speeds? Please!), it's still an enjoyable listen. Finally, there's a gag reel (basic bloopers) and a series of preview trailers.
If you're a sucker for a routine example of the "us against them" cinematic contest paradigm, then Stomp the Yard will satisfy your inert itch for banal basics. But if you look closely, you can see what director Sylvain White could have made from this mechanical mess. His is a career worth watching. Unfortunately, this feature cannot claim the same sentiment.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Full-Length Audio Commentary with Director Sylvain White, Director of Photography Scott Kevan, and Editor David Checel
* Battles, Rivals, Brothers Featurette
* Extended/Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Official Site