Review: Battle of the Year

Dance-off movies – however dumb, contrived, clichéd, and clunky they may be – typically get a pass from most critics. Dance-off films are very much in the spirit of Bollywood films, in that they go for broke, and tend to joyously embrace their own lack of legitimate conflict, gleefully forwarding a fully-realized non-agenda of pure entertainment. There is something innocently unassuming and wholly entertaining about pointing a camera at a dancer. Just watching someone dance – with no story, no battle, no conflict – can reduce even the most staunch of critics into a clapping, gibbering mass of giggles. Just ask me to talk about Step Up 3D sometime to understand what I’m talking about.

That said, Battle of the Year is no Step Up 3D. But then, what is? Indeed, even in a genre known for its cheap melodrama and the lack of conflict, Battle of the Year is particularly sloppy. All of the standard archetypes are set up well enough (the cocky jerk who learns a lesson in humility, the alcoholic coach who has Valuable Lessons to teach about teamwork, the homophobe who learns to love the gay man, the hardworking young father who is doing it all for his family, the team of dancers who have to learn there is no “I” in team, etc. etc.), and the dancers act as well as can be expected, but the film loses sight of the one most important thing about dance-off films: The actual dancing.

I don’t mind if the dialogue is stupid, or if the acting is bad. What I want from a dance movie is good dancing. Sadly Battle of the Year kind of whiffs on that, presenting us with hideously over-edited dance numbers that play out without rhyme or context. When our heroic scrappy underdog American B-Boy crew faces off against the ambiguously Korean crew, it’s hard to tell why one is better than the other. The acrobatics seem to be evenly impressive across the board, and it’s never established what separates one crew from another in terms of technique, style, or skill. It’s just a long string of one-second clips of unbelievably fit young men flinging themselves impossibly high into the air, and then landing in a cocky pose. Neat, but why?

The vaguely handsome Josh Holloway plays the alcoholic coach Blake who must assemble and train a B-Boy Dream Team within the span on three months at the behest of a rich old friend who likes to sponsor international dance teams. Blake takes on a Jewish assistant named Franklyn (Josh Peck), and the bulk of the film plays like an extended training montage, wherein Blake and Franklyn teach a rag-tag group of misfits to behave like a team. The team is made up largely of real-life B-Boys with names like Flipz, Do Knock, Sniper, Li’l Adonis, Mayhem, Splatter, Buttress, Corset, Kendrick, Bisquick, Hooplah, Pikachu, Ice Capade, Captain Video, Papsmear, Lux Interior, Goulash Hudsucker, Joey “Intestinal Distress” Ripper, Squeezem Right “Flippy” Potato, Admiral Freak-N-Sneak Cumberbatch, and Diego Roger-Roger Flamespawn McCracken.

I may have made some of those up.

Battle of the Year heavily references – and even credits as inspiration – the 2007 documentary Planet B-Boy, which is called the Bible of the B-Boy world, and tells the true story of the exact same competition on display in this fictionalized version. The documentary really delved into street dance culture, and traces how breakdancing has evolved into one of the most athletic art forms in the world. It had the advantage of depicting the real-life dance crews doing some of the most amazing dances you may ever see. Battle of the Year adds an obnoxious Hollywood gloss that not only sticks in dumb stories and meaningless personal conflicts (which is actually fine), but also tatters up the actual structure and meaning of the dance. We once had real people doing a difficult thing. Now we have teary actors intoning cliches like “This is all I GOT!”

That alcoholism storyline? Never resolved, by the way. Indeed, the alcoholic is seen drinking a glass of wine late in the film.

A note to the directors of dance movies: Film the dancing. Keep the camera still. Don’t edit too much. The rest will take care of itself.

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.