Battle of the Year explores the modern world of B-boy dancing or B-boying (the original term for breakdancing), which originated back in New York in the 1970s, but over the years since then has evolved into an international sport/competitive art form. When the movie picks up in the present-day, fifteen years have passed since the American team won at the B-boying world championship. Perhaps even worse, the U.S. team has established a reputation for being little more than a squad of cocky, self-absorbed, hotshots (rather than collaborators unified in their synchronous performance style).
Former B-boying trendsetter-turned L.A. hip-hop mogul Dante Graham (Laz Alonso) is determined to put his country back on top in the sport, lest it cause the popularity of hip-hop culture in general to diminish in the U.S. (look, just go with it). He seeks the assistance of his old friend Jason Blake (Josh Holloway), a former champion basketball coach who lost his way after suffering a personal tragedy – but with only some three months for training, can Blake put together a united team that is capable of bringing the B-boying trophy home to the country where it all started?
Director Benson Lee previously helmed the B-boying documentary Planet B-Boy; in fact, that film is literally integrated into the story that screenwriters Brin Hill (Won’t Back Down) and Chris Parker (Vampire in Brooklyn) devised for Battle of the Year. However, Lee’s new dance movie wastes the chance to explore how B-boying organically allows for – and is shaped by – different cultural influences and forms of individual expression – a means to unify people from different backgrounds in the U.S. (and even around the globe). Instead, the movie skimps on developing that idea, by instead lazily promoting xenophobia, ethnic stereotypes and a half-baked sense of what it means to have national pride.
Moving beyond how Battle of the Year is just flawed on a basic philosophical level: the movie is also a laughable collection of cheesy underdog sports genre cliches, weak melodrama, and confusing shot composition/editing choices that sometimes make even the most incredible athleticism on display in the dancing sequences boring to watch. This is the sort of movie where characters say things like “That’s not who I am anymore!” and “He went from white bread to Wonder Bread!” and it is meant to be taken completely serious. Heck, if Will Ferrell had been cast instead of Josh Holloway, this movie could’ve been a spot-on parody of the sports movie genre.
Fan-favorite Josh Holloway (Lost) makes a worthwhile effort to give his character some compelling substance, yet his protagonist (as written) is so thinly-sketched and uncreatively derivative of previous onscreen coaches (did I mention that he has a drinking problem?) that his attempts are in vain. The same could be said for Laz Alonso (Deception) in the few scenes that feature him, in addition to Josh Peck (Red Dawn (2012)) as Franklyn – a young Jewish man with a real appreciation for the art of B-boying – and Caity Lotz (Arrow) as the (if you’ll pardon the wording) tough-cookie female choreographer hired on to work alongside the American team.
The best developed of the American B-boyers is the arrogant-but-talented Rooster (Chris Brown), yet even that character is flat; not to mention, the dancer – and the man who plays him – has an obnoxious presence, thus robbing the dramatic beats that involve him of any heartfelt substance. Supporting players like Jon “Do Knock” Cruz, Ivan “Flipz” Velez, Jesse “Capser” Brown and the numerous other minor cast members who possess legitimate mad dancing skills (see: not Brown) are often not even distinguishable by their names – the script might as well refer to them as “Rooster’s rival,” “The Token Gay,” “The Guy Who Hates the Token Gay,” etc.
But what about the dance numbers, i.e. the main factor that will motivate people to see Battle of the Year? Well, unfortunately, there’s not that much in the way of pure B-boying in the movie; not to mention, several of the dance-training scenes are blandly shot and spliced together with other lines of action in poorly-conceived triple-split-screen montages. Credit where credit’s due, though, a good chunk of the third act and climax are dedicated to fine-tuned show numbers of the B-boyers flipping, jumping, bending, contorting and defying gravity like nobody’s business, in sequences that are filmed in a satisfactory fashion – and thus, make decent use of the 3D element (though, it’s hard to argue that alone is enough to justify paying the extra ticket surcharge for a 3D screening).
As a whole, though, there’s not nearly enough quality material to make Battle of the Year recommendable (much less, accessible) to anyone other than the most hard-core of dance fanatics – and even they may want to think twice about seeing the movie in theaters. Everyone else, this is just potential future home viewing material for a drinking game: take a shot every time a dancer points and oohs at his opponent or Josh Holloway gives a pep talk (… or when there’s an unnecessary reaction shot featuring Chris Brown).
If you’re still on the fence about Battle of the Year, check out the trailer below:
Battle of the Year is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 109 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for language and some rude behavior.