Viewed through the lens of schadenfreude, Battle of the Year is a slammin' entertainment. There is nary a frame that goes by without an embarrassment to the great art of acting, cinematography, or screenwriting. The holy trinity is dashed to pieces through a beaten and depressed-looking Josh Holloway, terrible dance scenes, and dialogue so direct it makes you wonder why there are visuals to go with the film at all. It’s a depressing experience, but one that brings up the questions about who thought they were getting a good shake out of the film.
I can’t bring myself to look at the film in only that fashion. As I’ve demonstrated, I love modern dance films. I’ve never cottoned to the Busby Berkeley films of old but one breakdancing and hip-hop started got more exposure I knew that I’d found the kind of dance I love to watch. Step Up 3D is, without irony, one of the best films ever – a perfect fusion with the joy of dance and people who know just how to make it pop onscreen.
Battle of the Year is a tease when it comes to dance. You’d think that would be a point of worry when the film markets itself as a dance movie, but that would get in the way of the overabundance of product placement and stagnant dialogue that tumbles through many joyless minutes. It’s more than thirty minutes before we see a full dance that isn’t reconstructed through reused stock footage. Most of that footage comes from director Benson Lee’s much better 2007 documentary Planet B-Boy.
I really like that film, but the characters in Battle of the Year are so enamored with it that Planet is referred to as their Bible many times. That’s all well and good, but Battle doesn’t practice what it preaches, and sidelines most of the dancing for scenes of Holloway berating kids in a prison for not dancing to his specifications. What I pull from this is that Benson recognizes talent and has his own skill for capturing dance as it happens, but when it comes to staging the moments he fumbles badly.
Part of that has to do with the basic optics of the scenario. To go back, Step Up 3D reveled in its outlandish scenarios. The best sequence involved a group of multi-ethnic and gender coal miners kicking chalk up aggressively while our similarly diverse heroes are led in response by a dance-hardened robot to victory through an explosion of joyous dance. Battle barely acknowledges its dance sequences, having so little respect for the performers that the optics become dubious at best. I’m not sure anyone stopped to think if the image of a bunch of alpha male minorities beaten into submission by a white alcoholic Georgian would be a good one. Someone should have – because those images work insidiously hard to undo the collaborative spirit of hip-hop dance films at their best.
The dances are so begrudgingly included that they become less of a mutual exchange of skill and more a schizophrenic threat. They seem to be filmed with frames missing, skittering along in jerky motions that demonstrate not so much skill as a willingness to hurt oneself. Length is problematic too, because the numbers don’t even stick around long enough to make an impact. The whole thing stinks of a film tossed off due to obligations, to who or for what I can only speculate, and hastily assembled because of an excess of stock dance footage and a need to fill a spot in the cinema.
I cannot stress enough just how tired and angry Josh Holloway looks the entire time. His career trajectory has gone from being a dynamic presence on LOST, to a bit of camp fun in cut scenes for video games, to being the drunk coach for a team led by Chris Brown. That be enough to drive me to drink, but the budget for Battle seems to have allowed for only one flask and an empty bottle of vodka. Holloway takes maybe five sips throughout the film, which I’m sure amounts to a shot – maybe a shot and a half. This isn’t enough to show he actually has a drinking problem, so it’s good that there are solid minutes devoted to talking about the problem they can barely show.
Brown is, as you might expect, as charming an actor as he is a feminist – stomping around obnoxiously before graciously being shown offstage. The other notable performance is from Josh Peck as Franklyn (with a ‘y’ as the dialogue constantly reminds us), who seems to have been provided a can of hair grease and told to never elevate his dialogue above a whisper. It makes him difficult to hear amidst some of the loud songs on the soundtrack, but given the inanity of many lines I doubt I missed much. My absolute favorite is the insight, “Each of the five judges scales on a score of one to ten, which means that a perfect score is fifty,” a thought poised to challenge only fifth-graders.
Don’t take all of this to mean that Battle of the Year is camp fun or enjoyably bad. It’s aggressive in the worst way, sucking all of the fun out of dance and turning it into a boot camp to be endured. As an anti-dance film, that almost passes. As entertainment, you’d be better off picking up one of the many Sony products it endorses and find a way to amuse yourself.
Directed by Benson Lee.
Screenplay written by Brin Hill and Chris Parker.
Starring Josh Holloway and Chris Brown.