Originally created 04/08/06

Review: 'Take the Lead'



Like "Lords of Dogtown," the skateboarding film based on the documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," "Take the Lead" was a far more effective story in its original nonfiction form.

It's inspired by the work of Pierre Dulaine, whose dance classes in New York City public schools also provided the basis for the charming 2005 documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom."

But the moves have been moved from elementary school to high school, and the feel-good factor has been cranked up. ("Mad Hot Ballroom" put a smile on your face without trying so hard.)

Here, Antonio Banderas serves up tough love to at-risk kids as the old-world Dulaine, teaching them the tango and the fox-trot with the hope that they'll simultaneously learn discipline and dignity.

But Banderas is so low-key in his gentlemanly, romantic manner, he makes a predictable movie more tolerable than it should be.

The feature debut from Liz Friedlander is shot and edited in fluid, vibrant fashion, as you would expect from a veteran music video director. But the speed with which these kids combine traditional ballroom-dance steps with modern hip-hop music is ridiculous. It's like something out of "Fame" - you fully expect them to run out into the street and start dancing on the tops of taxi cabs.

Among the motley group in detention, who will be forced to partner up and boogie down, are the star-crossed Rock (Rob Brown from "Finding Forrester") and LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta), each of whom blames the other for their older brothers' violent, untimely deaths. (Dianne Houston's script has Pierre making a Tybalt-and-Mercutio comparison, in case we couldn't figure out the subplot's Shakespearean origins for ourselves.)

There's also the astonishingly hot Sasha (Jenna Dewan), who's the target of both Ramos (Dante Basco) and Danjou (Elijah Kelley) on and off the dance floor. (A sexy three-way tango they perform at the climactic citywide dance competition nearly gets them disqualified; it's vampy but fun.)

Then there are a couple of cases of forbidden interracial love, including the tentative romance between the very large, very black Monster (gentle giant Brandon T. Andrews) and the very petite, very white Caitlin (Lauren Collins), who practices for her upcoming cotillion with Pierre's low-income misfits because she feels more comfortable with them than she does on the Upper East Side.

"You need to dance for yourself, not for anybody else," Pierre tells Caitlin. A shamelessly saccharine line, but Banderas doesn't oversell it, which surprisingly makes it work. Collins is sweet and sort of lovely in her awkwardness on the receiving end of this advice, which helps a great deal.

Among the other potentially cringeworthy lines from Pierre as he tries to inspire his students: "I look around this room and all I see is choices - choices waiting to be made."

You have a choice, too. You could go out and see this feel-good facsimile and be moderately entertained, or rent "Mad Hot Ballroom" and feel yourself becoming genuinely moved by the real thing.

"Take the Lead," a New Line Cinema release, is rated PG-13 for thematic material, language and some violence. Running time: 119 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.