Jason Chandler (Roy Kieffer) is a dance choreographer/aerobics instructor in Las Vegas. He’s also a recovering coke fiend, which isn’t helped any by the fact that his roommate Alan (Jack Zavorak) is a coke dealer. After Alan is killed for his illicit activities, Jason is hounded by a crime kingpin who goes under the alias The Turtle. But Jason has a show to finish prepping and a burgeoning romance with blonde bimbo Diane (Rebecca Barrington) to stoke. What’s a guy to do?
Dance or Die is Richard W Munchkin’s directorial debut, and it’s a mostly solid one. Shot on video, with a few stock establishing shots that were done on film, the movie almost holds together from start to finish. That said, it is deceptively marketed, if the video box art is all you have to go on. What a viewer expects is a slasher set against the backdrop of the world of dance, a la Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright which, by coincidence or kismet, was also released in 1987. But the two couldn’t be further apart if they tried. Soavi’s film knows what it is, and stays true to itself despite its ludicrous turns (this is, in fact, its biggest asset). Dance or Die wants to serve several masters, never completely satisfying any of them, though it also sticks to its guns, for better or worse. It is, at its core, a gutter level All That Jazz with a few more bullet hits and characters culled from the Cannon Films stock character list.
The crime angle of the film isn’t nearly as important as either the dance numbers or Jason’s addiction. There are multiple scenes of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where background characters tell their tales of woe. Since none of these advance the plot any or develop the characters beyond what we already know, they become superfluous after the first one. They do, however, introduce the character of Kay (George Neu), Jason’s sponsor. She always has words of wisdom for Jason, and he rarely, if ever, listens to them, but she remains steadfastly in his corner. But Jason doesn’t really seem to have any great cravings for drugs until the end (okay, a little at the beginning, too). The time he spends with Kay is typically centered on the threats The Turtle makes against him (he has something the bad guy wants, although The Turtle is coy about naming it, which would, you know, expedite things, maybe) and his growing love for Diane. Considering the amateurish way the action is orchestrated, perhaps this is for the best.
The scenes which would attract action fans appear to have been done on the fly, with no regard for coverage. Consequently, the geography is confused, and the shots don’t quite cut together well enough to be convincing or entertaining (except in a cheesy sort of way). For example, a character on a motorcycle is chased by a car. The two roll along streets in a way that makes M C Escher’s “Relativity” look like Route 66. Things happen in defiance of the laws of time and physics just to have action beats. So, instead of being pulled along by any sort of rising tension, the audience’s time is spent trying to figure out what exactly it is they’re looking at. The initial hit on Alan and his barbecue buddies consists of random people, who may or may not have been seen prior to the attack, getting hit with blood splatter (the standouts here are the guy who tries to shield himself with a bag of briquets and the woman who nonchalantly eats her food well after the mayhem has begun, as if panic and gunshots wouldn’t tip one off that maybe they should run for shelter). For as shoddy as this stuff is, there’s also just not enough of it. Jason never becomes the action hero we expect him to become. He remains a drug-addicted twit to the bitter end (like Joe Gideon, see?).
One interesting thing about Dance or Die does is how it incorporates its dance numbers into the film. What Munchkin and company do is intercut clips from a particular routine with actions in the real world (which are not necessarily action-packed), until we get the full sequences. While this does work as far as the technical editing goes, it doesn’t actually do anything for the plot lines of the narrative. The threads are disparate, and they seldom tie together. They mean nothing in direct relation to each other (with one exception: the big sex scene). They’re just juxtaposed against one another, as if that’s all they need to be, bizarre transitions that look nice but are empty.
It can be argued that dance and action sequences are basically the same thing (this most definitely applies to martial arts, but it can extend to more traditional action). The difference lies in the fact that dance scenes tell you that they are a performance (most people don’t just break out in song, and, if they do, rarely are they instantly backed up by music and dancers who telepathically know all the steps). Action, when done right, is just as choreographed, just as heightened, and is even often set to music, but it integrates into the world of the film. Audiences accept this over the dissonance of the narrative break that accompanies dance numbers, even when the action portrayed in a fist fight or car chase is as ludicrous as anything in a musical number. Dance or Die emphasizes the similarities and disparities simultaneously, just without any real context to make a connection.
The dance scenes are representations of Jason’s inner conflicts. For example, one routine has Jason strung upside down in a strait jacket while face-painted dancers in frill-accented bondage gear and hot-pink fright wigs attack him with clubs (indeed, it’s as much fun to watch as it sounds). Another has a man and woman slither around each other on a motorcycle (in relation to the aforementioned sex scene). Most startling is the one where the dancers are all hit by faux gunshots while they gyrate and paw at each other. Any way you slice it, these are Jason’s anxieties visually translated for an audience: the feeling of insanity as the world beats you down, the passion of new love, the fear of death by gunshot, etcetera. While these sequences are entertaining for their extremely Eighties conceits, it’s a shame they mix together with the rest of the film like oil and water. And that, unfortunately, is the movie’s biggest drawback across the board. That and the endless profile shots of Jason driving around Vegas.
MVT: The dance routines are fun for what they are.
Make or Break: The douchey, forced Meet Cute between Jason and Diane in the supermarket. It’s pretty pathetic.