Bring It On. And On. And On.
How a sleeper hit about cheerleading became a direct-to-DVD franchise. Plus: which sequel is best.
All or Nothing: The second sequel wisely returns to a high-school setting, where popular, blond cheer captain Britney (a pre-Heroes Hayden Panettiere) is forced to move with her newly laid-off parents to working-class Crenshaw Heights. After clashing with Camille (Solange Knowles, sister to Beyoncé), Britney decides to join forces with her and enter a cheer competition. The winner of the competition will secure a spot in a Rihanna TV show. (Rihanna appears here in a pre-"Umbrella" cameo—the producers of this sequel in particular seem to have had a great eye for talent.) They blend typical cheer moves with krumping, a kind of street dancing that was making the trend story rounds at the time. Watching Panettiere thump her chest and stomp her feet is both painful and hilarious. "Damn," one characters observes, "Vanilla Latte got skills."
The Bring It On franchise has flirted on several occasions with saying something of substance about race but has never quite followed through. In the original movie, when Torrance discovers that the award-winning cheer routines choreographed by her predecessor were stolen from East Compton High, we get a mini lesson on the cost of white girls' appropriation of black culture. But East Compton, like Crenshaw Heights in All or Nothing, is portrayed in broad strokes. It's a place where people breakdance before class and must pass through metal detectors to get to homeroom.
In It To Win It: This sequel is a not-so-subtle homage to West Side Story, in which two rival cheer squads, the West Coast Sharks and the East Coast Jets, battle for first place at the Cheer Camp Championships. The two teams clash in style—the West Coast is influenced by music videos and the East Coast is faithful to classic routines—but the Sharks' captain can't resist falling for a Jet named Penn, who has a secret: He lied to his parents about being at camp because they don't think it appropriate for a guy to be a cheerleader.
Male cheerleaders appear throughout the series, but the writers never seem to know whether they should occupy the role of the gay best friend, the love interest, or the lothario. The original has one horny straight guy on the squad and another who calls his sexuality "controversial." In It To Win It features a gay character who sports a flame tattoo, serious highlights, and a bandana tied jauntily around his head. But in the end of the movie, he is revealed to be a straight guy pretending to be gay—he likes being on the squad because girls change their clothes in front of him. Again, a potentially serious issue is ultimately tossed aside in favor of a plot straight out of Scooby Doo: solving the mystery of who stole the spirit stick.
Fight to the Finish: The latest sequel picks up the racial theme from All or Nothing but flips it around. This time, the mother of Cuban-American cheerleader Lina marries a rich white guy, so Lina must move from her beloved East L.A., where every cholo has a lowrider, to Malibu, where she is confused by the bidet in her en suite bathroom. The central issue in Fight to the Finish is whether Lina will succeed in getting her square stepsister and shy Asian friend to loosen up by shaking their hips to the reggaeton beat. I won't spoil the ending for you.
There's no question that these sequels lack Bring It On's zippy dialogue and cynical attitude. But they aren't unwatchable. If you come into the films with managed expectations, you'll find that each one has meticulously choreographed cheers, a few genuine laughs, and a satisfying ending. Thanks to their fine choreography and their signature dollop of self-consciousness, these movies are simply too entertaining to hate. As Hayden Panettiere says in All or Nothing, "Spirit is what makes life fun even when it isn't." Just cover your eyes when she starts to krump.