'Battle of the Year': Dance-competition clichés ... in 3-D!
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
I don't mean to puncture the fourth wall here, but you are reading this on some kind of Web-connected computer or tablet or suchlike. If you are actually interested in B-boy dancing -- one of the pillars of hip-hop culture that, like hip-hop, has gone global -- and want to see the skill, energy and athleticism of those who keep it alive, you could simply punch that phrase into your browser and find hours of footage of real dancers and real competitors. That would be a much, much better investment of your time than watching "Battle of the Year," a dead-in-the-soul cash grab of a movie set in the competitive world of B-boy dancing that thinks clichés, phony melodrama and product placement can substitute for real storytelling and actual characters.
This film credits as its inspiration the documentary "Planet B-Boy," which looked at the global appeal of a uniquely American art form by showing the preparations and competitors for the Battle of the Year championship, held annually in France. Regrettably, that seems where the inspiration gave out. "Battle of the Year" begins as Dante (Laz Alonso), a mogul from the Diddy/West school, rages at his managers and minions about how the USA has been getting its butt kicked at B-boy dancing. It's not just that it was ours first, at Dante points out: If B-boy isn't cool, hip-hop isn't cool -- and sales of Dante's media empire of music, movies and merchandising are already falling. The fact that Dante wants to back the USA in the Battle of the Year not out of patriotism but instead in the name of market share would be hilarious, if only it wasn't so sad.
Dante then finds his old B-boy pal and ex-basketball coach Jason Blake (Josh Holloway) so that Blake might lead a USA team to victory. Blake, who constantly drinks, grimacing from a flask and who lost his wife and child two years ago in a horrible contrivance -- uh, accident -- reluctantly takes up the job aided by Dante's employee Franklyn (Josh Peck), a B-boy fan with zero skills (Franklyn explains, "My people were not chosen ... for dance skills; all our swag gets snipped at the circumcision.") Meeting L.A.'s finest crew, Blake then gets an idea: Why not recreate what U.S. basketball did and create a Dream Team of B-boys, the best of the best, to take to the Battle of the Year?
We then have to meet all our would-be team members -- with crew nicknames like Rebel, Sniper, Grifter and Mayhem, they all sound like bad '90s superheroes -- and come to understand the jealousy seething between Rooster (Chris Brown) and his rival Do Knock (Jon "Do Knock" Cruz). "Battle of the Year" mostly hires real B-boys to play its dancers, which works out well because of how little acting is actually involved; the exception is Chris Brown's Rooster. It's fairly amusing when right before the team goes to France, Rooster is injured, which isn't just a sports movie cliché but also helps maintain the terms of Brown's real-world probation, which he earned by brutally beating his girlfriend so hard he broke her skin.
Director Benson Lee also made "Planet B-Boy," so there's no one to blame but him and screenwriters Brin Hill and Chris Parker for this mess. There's also plenty of product placement, not just for the parent company of the studio (all the Dream Team members get Sony PSPs, with one exclaiming breathlessly, "The controls are on the back!") but also for Puma and Braun. The 3-D is fairly useless as well: The biggest workout the gimmick gets is in the film's split-screen training montages, and it's not especially impressive (or required) in the dancing sequences. "Planet B-Boy" is dedicated to lazy storytelling and corporate-mandated branding, and that greed and gracelessness pour out of every scene. When a dance film leaves you longing for the integrity, intelligence, filmmaking skill and joy found in "Step Up," "Step Up 2: The Streets" and "Step Up 3D," that's when you realize "Battle of the Year" may have "winners" on-screen but really just makes losers out of the audience.
James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.