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Ebiri on Battle of the Year: Great Dancing, Needs More Dancing

Is this the first feature film in history designed to be a commercial for a documentary? Back in 2007, director Benson Lee made a pretty engaging doc called Planet B-Boy, about break dancing and hip-hop culture and the “Battle of the Year” international dance tournament. It played a few festivals (including Tribeca) and had a modest theatrical release. Now, he’s turned it into a feature film, casting a lot of talented dancers as a ragged crew of Americans who must be whipped into shape in order to compete in the titular tournament. These kids spend a lot of time watching Planet B-Boy, and there’s even a whole scene that’s basically an excerpt from the movie. They actually call the film “our Bible” at one point. I’m glad Lee is so proud of his earlier movie, but really?

Modesty, of course, isn’t a part of b-boying, and the thrust of Battle of the Year — how a group of extremely talented and extremely cocky young dancers from disparate backgrounds learn to work as a team and suppress their natural desire to showboat, in a dance form practically built on showboating — might have been an interesting one. But Battle of the Year mixes its dance-movie clichés with sports-movie clichés. Our hero, Derrek (Lost’s Josh Holloway) is a veteran dancer and onetime pioneer:  The hillbilly country boy who once showed those urban kids that even a hick could have sick moves. (“He went from white bread … to Wonder Bread,” somebody recalls, in what might be the most confusing line in a movie filled with confusing lines.) But now Derrek is a broken, alcoholic shell of a man, thus fulfilling one of the key requirements of being a movie coach, and he has to find a way to get these guys to work together. To do so, he has help from Franklyn (Josh Peck), a Jewish assistant (“I might be Jewish, but my religion is hip-hop!”), and Stacy (Caity Lotz), a female choreographer.  We're told the latter is awesome, but the film never actually shows her doing her job, so we’ll have to take their word for it.

As for the dancers, they’re an appropriately diverse group, with their built-in rivalries: There's the former soldier who picks on the gay kid, there are the two talented leaders (one of them played by professional hated-person Chris Brown) who still nurse an old, bitter rivalry. The movie halfheartedly makes its way through these bits and pieces of character development; to call it unconvincing drama would be to demean the word "drama." Still, it's all mostly harmless. The dancers aren't good actors, but they make up for it in enthusiasm and energy. You can even enjoy some of the terrible dialogue. I think my favorite is when Coach Derrek says, “There are two ways to build the tallest building in the world. One: Build a giant-ass skyscraper. Two: Tear down all the other buildings.” He then pauses, and adds, earnestly, “We’re here to build,” probably unaware that some in the audience may still be wondering what kind of idiot goes for option two. 

Dance movies get knocked around, but at their best they can be electrifying — think of the non-plot scenes of the Step Up films, or classics like Fame, or even Bring It On. Battle of the Year clearly features lots of brilliant dancers, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching them move. But you wish there were more dancing here. Even though the film is supposedly hurtling towards a big gravity-defying, foot-stomping climax, by far the best sequence is an early informal dance-off against the Russians, while the Americans are still learning to downplay their me-me-me, cock-of-the-walk moves. The whirlwind Russians work in unison to form these amazing body clusters, each of them a great big "fuck you" to our selfish heroes. Even the film’s big finale never quite matches this moment.

There’s the germ of an interesting idea here. Watching the international array of dancers, I was reminded of how, back in the eighties, you'd occasionally see some foreign break-dance group, and how they were invariably terrible. But as digital culture spread, breaking down borders faster than anyone could imagine, this landscape changed. One could see it less as a tale of American decline and more one of everybody else catching up. Battle of the Year pays lip service to this, but it loses itself too quickly in trying to be the movie it thinks it has to be, rather than the movie it could be — a standard arrangement of sports- and dance-movie tropes, instead of a film that boldly displays the uniqueness of its subculture. Luckily, there is a movie you can watch instead that will give you both fascinating context and awesome dancing. It’s called Planet B-Boy.

Photo: Screen Gems, Inc.