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Film review: Bring It On

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Give me a "D." Give me an "E." Give me an "L." Give me an "I." Give me a "G." Give me an "H." Give me a "T." Give me an "F." Give me a "U." Give me a "L."

What's it spell? Delightful, which is one sure way to describe "Bring it On," a film that probably shouldn't be half as entertaining as it is.

A genuine, pleasant surprise would be the other way to refer to this unexpectedly smart and funny comedy. Judging by the trailers, you'd think the film was following in the clunky footsteps of such recent duds as "Center Stage."

But unlike that movie, this one isn't meant to be taken seriously. Instead, it's a mostly well-crafted piece that recalls both "10 Things I Hate About You" and "Waiting for Guffman" — at least in its unorthodox style of humor.

Also, it's a sure star-making platform for already well-received actress Kirsten Dunst, who stars as high school cheerleader Torrance Shipman.

It should be a banner year for this popular senior at Rancho Carne High in San Diego, who's been named captain of the five-time national champion Toro cheerleading squad. But instead she's got a series of crises to deal with.

First, she has to replace a squad member — which she does with tough-as-nails transfer student Missy Pantone (Eliza Dushku, from TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), who immediately clashes with her new squadmates

Worse, she also calls into question the originality of the squad's routines. It seems that Torrance's predecessor (Lindsay Sloane) may have actually swiped from the East Compton Clovers, an inner-city school that's now bent on revenge.

In desperation, Torrance and the Toros turn to a professional choreographer (Ian Roberts, in a hilarious bit part), a move that backfires with disastrous results during a regional competition.

So it's back to square one, as the down-but-not-out cheerleaders suddenly have to come up with a brand-new routine just weeks from the national championships. Poor Torrance also has to resolve some lingering relationship issues with her longtime boyfriend (Richard Hillman), as well as Missy's similarly iconoclastic brother (Jesse Bradford), to whom she's attracted.

That latter subplot is probably the story's weakest, most undeveloped point, and there's a lot more vulgarity than there probably should be (including some pretty tasteless sex jokes).

But it's directed with real pizazz by first-time filmmaker Peyton Reed, known primarily for television and music video work.

It's also got a great script (by newcomer Jessica Bendinger) that pokes holes in all the high-school myths about athletic popularity, as well as managing to make some good points about the consequences of cheating and for racial understanding.

Not to take anything away from the cast, though. Dunst really sinks her teeth into her meaty lead role, though Dushku makes a serious bid to upstage her as the only seeming voice of reason.

Adding to the fun is the terrific dance and cheer choreography, and great supporting turns from Clare Kramer and Nicole Bilderbeck as two backstabbing members of the Toros squad, and Bradford, who manages to bring some goofy likability to his somewhat underwritten role.

"Bring it On" is rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor, lewd dancing and vulgar gestures, occasional strong profanity and violence (a comedic football brawl). Running time: 100 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com