Early in the first act of Battle of the Year, a slick-haired Josh Peck breathlessly tells a scowling Josh Holloway, “I might be Jewish, but my religion is hip hop.” It’s that sort of deranged sincerity and slack-jawed earnestness that makes the dance film feel so much like a discarded “SNL” skit and less like an actual film. A thoroughly paint-by-the-numbers outing, Battle of the Year looks for originality in its numerous dance performances (which are indeed impressive, and almost too fast for the film’s useless 3D to catch in a satisfying manner), because it’s almost inconceivable that anyone mistook Brin Hill and Chris Parker’s script for anything less than a retread of just about every other sports film ever made.
The film revolves (and spins and kicks and flips) around the type of big time corporation that’s typically the faceless baddie in films like this: as business big wig Dante, Laz Alonso’s company has long sponsored a team of break dancers who represent the U.S.A. at an international competition called, you guessed it, Battle of the Year. But the American team has gone slack and soft, and they need something (or someone?) to shake them up. Enter Jason “W.B.” Blake (Holloway), an old pal of Dante’s who used to be a basketball coach before giving into personal demons (no matter about that basketball thing, Dante thinks that “a coach is a coach!”) and he’s supposedly the best way to get things rolling again (and one hell of a plot contrivance to boot). Blake is a classic tough-talker and go-his-own-way kind of guy – he literally writes a clause into his coaching contract that reads “If I do this, I gotta do this on my own terms” – but Dante believes in him. Or something.
Break dancing (or, within the context of the film, b-boying) may be an originally and indelibly American creation, but the electric bugaloo mantle has been taken up by hip hop heads the world over – which is one of the reasons the Battle of the Year takes place in France (as strange as this sounds, and boy does it, BOTY is a real thing that really does happen annually in France). That’s one of the reasons the dancing quest at the center of Battle of the Year is so desperate – the Americans are compelled to bring the trophy (and the pride, and the glory, and the whatever) back to U.S. soil, and they’ll go to great lengths to accomplish it. For Blake, those lengths include hardcore sport training and making his boys live in a rotted-out juvenile detention facility. What a guy!
The bevy of b-boys Blake recruits for the team come with a whole mess of unique street names – from Intricate to Lil Adonis, all the way down to Kilowatt, Grifter, and Rooster, Battle of the Year does not skimp when it comes to sassy monikers – but that’s just about the only thing that differentiates most of the dancing cast. About eighty percent of the b-boys are utterly interchangeable, and even the ones who are given personalities and backstory are saddled with cookie-cutter attributes, including “the two former friends who hate each other now,” “the gay one,” “the one with the secret,” and so on. That’s how thinly written this thing is – not many films would name a guy “Flair” and let that be the only thing with any actual flair about him.
As the lead character, even Holloway is subjected to remarkably trite character trappings – he’s a drunk, a hardass, a widow, a mourning father, and the kind of guy who keeps things that all but scream “memory!” in a box under his bed and who wears the same exact outfit for days on end (Holloway doesn’t change out of his old gray hoodie for the entire three month training period). It is all relentlessly predictable and weirdly and consistently entertaining.
Director Benson Lee tries to punch things up by using multiple screens, flashy angles, and pounding beats, but the only thing Battle of the Year really has going for it is top-tier dance numbers, and even they get consistently obscured. The film is also crammed from top to bottom with insultingly obvious product placement – Braun razors, all kinds of Sony products (the film was produced by Sony, of course), and even Lee’s previous works (his last film, Planet B-Boy, is treated like some sort of Bible for b-boys and is shown consistently throughout Battle of the Year), all of which distract and detract from the main show – good dancing and bad line delivery. The film will, undoubtedly, get a sequel.
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