YOU GOT SERVED (2004) is a formula melodrama about a subculture of fiercely competitive dance crews in L.A. At night they have showdowns in what looks like a boxing gym, taking turns doing routines, the victor decided by the crowds who fill the place to the brim and cheer so loud it sounds like a stadium. In the opening scene sometimes they jump and when they land their feet seem to cause the earth to shake, as if they are Titans. But mostly the movie tries to seem down to earth.
It centers on Elgin (Marques Houston, BEBE’S KIDS, HOUSE PARTY 3) and his best friend David (Omar “Omarion” Grandberry, WRONG SIDE OF TOWN). They and their friends are incredible dancers but sadly they talk about it more as a “way out” than an art or a passion or something they were born to do, even though it must be all of those things. In the opening battle the prize is $600, but I counted at least eight people they have to split it between. I’m sure battling is way better than working an 8 hour shift, but I don’t think you could win enough of these to pay the rent. So David and Elgin reluctantly supplement it by doing deliveries for a drug dealer named Emerald (Michael “Bear” Taliferro, HALF PAST DEAD; later directed STEPPIN’: THE MOVIE).
Elgin’s little sister Liyah (Jennifer Freeman, THE VISIT) is in college and has a job at the hospital, but his only plan for the future is to try to win a big contest that would get the crew an appearance in a Li’l Kim video. Part of the movie’s drama comes from David and Liyah starting to date – Elgin forbids it, which to me diminishes his effectiveness as a protagonist, since the movie knows he’s wrong but doesn’t seem to recognize that his patriarchal possessiveness of an adult sibling makes him a creepy weirdo. (He would’ve gone into a rage if he’d heard David compliment her “physique.”) David is the more reasonable and charming of the leads, but treated as sort of the sidekick.
What unites them is a rivalry with a crew led by Wade (Christopher Jones, “Boy with Cross,” FORREST GUMP), who they deride as a spoiled rich kid without having to point out he’s also one of the few white people in the movie. He’s not a character we learn much about, but he makes a solid villain because they managed to find a legit dancer with the pitch perfect smug face, which they then highlighted and triple underlined with the most hate-inducing hairdo available. Look at that picture – of course you want to see that guy defeated! He plays up to the look, remaining unsportsmanlike the whole time, doesn’t even give a “LaRusso, you’re all right” at the end. He does more of a Trumpian refusal to accept defeat.
I didn’t recognize his buddy Max as Robert Hoffman, the male lead from STEP UP 2 THE STREETS. Here he’s around 23 and looks really young – four years later you see him playing a high school kid and think “Who is this narc?”
By the way, like most 21st century dance movies this has female dancers with little or no dialogue who seem kind of cooler and more intriguing than most of the actual characters. I think we missed out by not getting to know this crew that gets defeated by Wade and pals.
The battles are overseen by Mr. Rad (Steve Harvey, THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY), who I think of as sort of a Charles S. Dutton type character: an older man who seems to hold great status in the community and doesn’t abide by bullshit. I don’t know what the regular adults outside of this dance battle subculture (like Elgin’s mom, played by Jackée) think of this middle aged gym owner who facilitates gambling between young dancers, even when the bet is so high he feels the need to hire an armed off duty police officer to guard the money. But I think the implication is that he keeps peace in the neighborhood by helping the youth channel their aggression into dance and telling them off if they try to turn it into a fight afterwards. His two main modes are
1) telling “knuckleheads” they’re being disrespectful and
2) giving wise advice to the “youngbloods.”
For me, at least at this time, this period of pop culture is not one I have a connection to or nostalgia for, but I guess I have an appreciation for its flashy cheesiness. It’s an era of giant Mark Ecko shirts, flip phones and exposed midriffs, and everybody has a similar swagger to the street racers in the first THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS – another movie that preposterously exaggerates the drama of a competitive multi-racial underground culture to package as a slick corporate product with an illusion of street credibility. It’s not nearly as good of a movie, but I like the soundtrack better – it shares Method Man and Ludacris, without Limp Bizkit, plus Nas and Aceyalone and a couple classics like “Ante Up” and “The Choice Is Yours.”
The story actually seems inspired by BRING IT ON, with the crew humiliated by their rivals doing their routine before they do, and moving from the gyms to a sunny convention center for the big event with color commentary by MTV’s La La and celebrity dignitaries Li’l Kim and Wade Robson. I didn’t know who that was, but he’s a dude with a wallet chain who acts important and explains to the crowd that he was involved with Britney Spears and NSYNC videos, a pitch this crowd is more impressed by than I’d figure. (And yeah, I now realize he’s one of the guys in that documentary who says Michael Jackson molested him.)
One of the subplots that could’ve used a little more is the character of Lil Saint (Malcolm David Kelley, DETROIT), a younger kid who they make an official member of the crew and call their mascot, and then he gets shot to death and they name the crew after him. (This is a dance movie that has two unrelated dramatic hospital visits – one for Lil Saint getting shot, one for Elgin getting jumped). For such a big part of the plot it’s weird that Lil Saint’s shooting and death all happens off screen, but what bugs me is he doesn’t dance! Don’t they know the tradition is to have a little kid in the dance movie for the novelty of seeing a little kid dance well?
Another subplot that is underplayed the exact right amount is Oscar (Oscar Orosco, who also plays an “Oscar” in BRING IT ON: AGAIN, hopefully the same character), an old friend who surprises them by showing up to help during the climax. We’ve heard about him throughout the movie as if he’s some guru: “I told you, he ain’t into battles no more, he’s all into the pureness of the art, he’s spiritual.”
I like that goofy shit, so I had fun with the last act. The competition is called The Big Bounce (probly more after the Elmore Leonard book than either of the movie versions in my opinion) and is intended to award the Li’l Kim video and $50,000 to “the hottest, hottest crew in Cali,” but somehow the judges end it in a tie. This result outrages both Wade Robson and Mr. Rad, who pushes past security to plead with “Li’l Miss Kim” that “You cannot do this to these boys. This ain’t just a prize to them. This is bigger than that.” (I don’t know if Li’l Kim respecting his opinion on this instead of brushing him off as a weirdo from the crowd is a testament to her down-to-earthness or to his gravitas.)
In all her wisdom, Li’l Kim announces that they will “take it to the streets,” which just means have another round. But she gives the Lil Saints some instructions:
“Listen now, y’all tear this mutha up, get grimy and dirty, straight street.”
“How street you want us to get?”
“You know how I like it, baby. Straight hood.”
“Hell no, just do the damn thing. No rules.”
This is the type of stuff I enjoy in these movies, because what the fuck does it mean? They all act like holy shit, shit is about to go OFF because of the reckless level of streetness, griminess and hoodness Li’l Kim has just demanded between these groups of people in baggy shirts dancing in front of each other. There are no rules… NO rules! Not even “no eye poking” like in early UFC! I CANNOT EVEN POSSIBLY FATHOM THE ABSOLUTELY INSANE DANCING SHENANIGANS THAT ARE ABOUT TO BE UNLEASHED UPON THIS CROWD THAT INCLUDES JACKEE AND STEVE HARVEY.
What happens when dancers are freed from rules? Do they juggle torches? Ride unicycles? Add trampolines? No, they don’t do anything weird, they just have David join them when he wasn’t allowed to before because he missed the first round and the rules are you have to keep the same team for every round.
Not anymore! COMPLETE AND TOTAL DANCE ANARCHY.
Writer/director Chris Stokes was the manager of the R&B boy band Immature, which included Marques Houston, who plays Elgin. (I’m not familiar with any of these artists, so apologies if I get any of my research wrong.) The group had a cameo in HOUSE PARTY 3 and then Stokes started his filmmaking career by directing them as the stars of HOUSE PARTY 4 (by which time they were known as IMx).For this, his second film, Stokes teamed Houston with members of another group, B2K (Omarion, J-Boog, Raz-B and Lil’ Fizz). Since then he’s directed over a dozen films, mostly for BET. For example Omarion and Houston starred in his horror movies SOMEBODY HELP ME 1 and 2.
As you may know, I’m a big fan of the STEP UP movies. The first one came out two years after YOU GOT SERVED and, though it has white leads and a more high concept premise (stubborn orphan street dancer and snooty modern dancer at prestigious performing arts school become dance partners, learning from each others’ styles and falling in love) there’s an obvious YOU GOT SERVED influence. Both have the young people associate with a heavy-set criminal who represents the dangers of street life they’re trying to escape. Both have a beloved pre-teen friend or brother who’s killed in a shooting before the last act and serves as a catalyst for good dancing. And all of the STEP UP sequels follow this format of dance crews dealing with internal politics, battling a rival crew and entering a high profile competition.
The STEP UP movies are exponentially better, but in fairness they had the advantage of being able to look at this very normal execution of the formula and ask what they could improve on or play off of. One of the biggest ways they do that is by changing the location of each battle, giving them different themes, gimmicks and story purposes. My favorite scene in STEP UP 3 is just a battle with a distinct look (The Battle of Red Hook), but other great scenes include two dancers battling through a crowded park and a couple doing sort of a SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN type romantic number dancing down a street. This pretty much just has dancing in the gym and then dancing in the convention center, and though it’s all very good and they do a variety of stuff I couldn’t explain to you how any one routine is different from the others.
This did beat the STEP UPs to having a splashy dance on a street in hard rain, but it’s just dissolves of solo dancing in a practice montage. STEP UP 2 THE STREETS made a whole complex number out of it. I do appreciate that YOU GOT SERVED’s version ends looking kinda like SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.
So YOU GOT SERVED is far from the best of this type of movie, but I don’t regret watching it. The cast is fairly likable, they adequately provide the melodramatic appeal of the underdog-sports-movie-meets-let’s-put-on-a-show formula, and I enjoy watching them dance. In times like these that can be enough. I got served.
P.S. Dancers I noticed on the credits: Kevin Federline (the guy that was famous for a while for being married to Britney Spears), Columbus Short (later an actor in SAVE THE LAST DANCE 2, STOMP THE YARD and THE LOSERS), Harry Shum Jr. (later in STEP UP 2 and 3, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY and ESCAPE PLAN: THE EXTRACTORS), Kevin Tancharoen (now known for directing Mortal Kombat: Legacy and episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Kenny Wormald (the lead in Craig Brewer’s FOOTLOOSE remake).