In the opening scene of Battle of the Year – possibly the lowest point in dance movie history – the shot caller at a large “entertainment company” named Dante (played by Laz Alonso) says that the kids today in America no longer thing B-boying is cool. Clearly Dante has never once left his office since the film this character inhabits is another lifeless retread in a subgenre of dance films that has been inexplicably growing strong since the early aughts. He’s clearly never heard of the TV show America’s Best Dance Crew. He’s also apparently oblivious to the fact that his own office has copies of B-Boy magazine on their coffee table with his picture on them. It’s such a bizarro universe that it could only exist in a contrived movie. Such is the complete tonal idiocy of this film that makes the Step Up movies look like Berlin Alexanderplatz.
It shouldn’t be this way since the film comes from director Benson Lee, whose 2007 documentary Planet B-Boy serves as the “inspiration” for this tale of American’s best dance crew members coming together to form a veritable dream team of sweet moves and fancy footwork. Not only does Lee get saddled with one of the most cliché and suspense free screenplays ever created, but he has seemingly forgot how to make dancing exciting on screen in a fictional situation. It’s one thing that the story is terrible and the acting God awful. It’s even more inexcusable that the dancing isn’t even that exciting to watch.
A few months before the 22nd annual Battle of the Year break dance competition in France, Dante decides he needs to shake things up in time for the Americans to compete in the Olympics of B-boying. To help bring home a title for the first time in 15 years, he hires an old friend and former basketball coach named WB (Josh Holloway), a washed up, drunken shell of a man with a dark past. Instead of using the same complacent dancers Dante has employed for years, WB sets out to put together a team modeled after the famed 1992 US Olympic Basketball Team, made up of colourful characters and the best of the best. With the help of his proudly Jewish assistant coach “Franklyn with a Y” (Josh Peck) and a spunky female choreographer (Caity Lotz), can they bring the US back to the art form they founded and take the title back from the dominant South Koreans? Can they overcome their perceived American egotism and function as a team when they all can’t get along?
Everything about the extremely unnecessary 110 minutes of Lee’s film has been done to death in precisely every sports movie and every dance movie that came before it. WB speaks only in hoary speeches about how “there’s no I in team” and how they must become a team and how they have to work hard and so on and so on into infinity. The crew is made up of basic stereotypes. There’s the guy with a secret. There’s the gay one. There’s the bigot that hates the gay one, but they will have to become friends later on. There’s the talented one. There’s the supremely arrogant talented one (played by Chris Brown, who it should be noted at least plays a character named Rooster and looks and sounds every bit like a cock). There’s the other Jewish guy. There’s the guy with the sweet tattoos and jean jacket. There aren’t any women because that would run affront to having a bunch of dudes stay at, sweat it out, and fight among each other at the abandoned juvenile detention centre they’re forced to live in while training so intensely. From The Bad News Bears and The Mighty Ducks to Beat Street and You Got Served, absolutely no stone is left unturned and no potential source material pillaged.
Even so, these shortcomings could have been turned into positives if Lee didn’t take the material so desperately serious. There’s nary a hint of levity from anyone except for one or two chuckle-worthy asides from Peck, who fares the best of the bunch but seems to be forgotten about for all but two scenes in the second half of the film. It’s never shown why WB is such a good dancer or even a great coach, it just has to be take on faith and Holloway simply can’t fill the gaps and seems to care only the minimum amount possible. It’s unclear what Alonzo’s character even really does for a living except for being really rich, being a former dancer with WB, and at one point having a discussion with an underling about flower arrangements for a band. Heck, the choreographer doesn’t even seem to really be teaching the dancers anything when she’s glimpsed in one of the numerous 3-part-split-screen montages Lee loves so much (but are still incapable of moving things along at anything less than a glacial pace).
Say what you will about the Step Up or Breakin’ films. Neither would ever be considered high art, and they’re arguably just as cliché, but they are actually fun to watch once the dancing kicks in. They are high energy affairs where the plot and acting comes secondary to everything else. Lee has somewhere along the line become delusional to the point where he thinks that opposite has to be true. It’s admirable that Lee wants to show the work that goes into making the routines, but not only does he show endless cycles of bland people running what are essentially drills, but he shows the same moves and drills over and over again.
The point of a dance film is to be cinematic; to make the dancing seem larger than life, or at the very least a physical achievement. Once the final competition hits, the final wind in the film’s sails gets sucked out. Granted, the US team’s single solo performance is fun to watch (involving a trip through hip-hop history and multiculturalism, ending with everyone blindfolded), but when the crews are battling it’s hard not to think of all the better dance sequences in films that came before it. The actual final showdown is maddening because at the film’s halfway point there’s a showdown between the Americans and the Russians that showcases teamwork. So why at the end does it just once again devolve into single people entering the cipher, doing a move, and walking away? That hardly seems like a championship. It seems like more drills.
Also, the film’s 3D is some of the most useless ever since no one ever does anything warranting the effect. Again, the Step Up films go out of their way to make this sort of thing fantastical enough for visual gimmickry to work. Here all audiences will get is a face full of Holloway’s drunken speeches and facial stubble. The dancing is too matter of fact for 3D to be useful, and it doesn’t help that Lee can’t be bothered to show more than one singular routine in its entirety, always feeling the need to cut away to reaction shots that patently kill the vibe.
It’s also incredibly annoying and arrogant that Lee thinks his previous documentary is such gospel that it’s deemed it “the bible” of B-boys by Franklyn, who then quickly points out he’s too Jewish to actually dance. It’s introduced to WB by Franklyn in that same scene, which also manages product placement for Braun shavers, Sony Tablets, and Netflix in the same 30 second breath. It’s the only thing that gives WB lesson plans for the following morning before he drunkenly passes out. And yet, Battle of the Year doesn’t contain a tenth of the charm, grace, or insight that his doc did.
Limping to the finish line while espousing the triumphs of good, old fashioned, American hard work, Battle of the Year goes out with a bigger whimper than any dance film I can remember. It’s positively exhausting to watch, but only because of length, repetition, and nothing eye catching ever happening. Actually seeking out B-Boys on city streets or even watching people goof off in a club offers more entertainment value, and in favour of those pursuits, the former is cheaper and the latter has drinks. As someone with a deep love for even the cheesiest of dance films I hope I never have to sit through one as dull as this ever again.