Film Review – Battle of the Year
Battle of the Year
Battle of the Year highlights the annual hip hop competition where the world’s best breakdancing crews come together to see who’s truly best. “Battle of the Year” is a true-life event, and if you do a quick YouTube search, you’ll come across some amazing tricks, stunts, and choreography. It is the top of the food chain when it comes to urban dance culture—if you even participate in it, you know you’ve made a name for yourself. Director Benson Lee has delved into this material before with Planet B-Boy (2007), a documentary charting the growth of breakdancing from its humble New York roots to the global phenomenon it has become. Perhaps he should have stuck with the documentary approach. Instead of allowing his film to be uplifted by dance, Lee burdens it with a cringe-worthy dramatic narrative.
Lee comes to the story with good intentions, populating it with real life breakdancers (or “B-Boys”). Some of the ones featured are the best in their field, well known amongst their peers. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because we get to see these people actually perform their routines. Very few in the world have the physical ability they have, and watching them is a sight to behold. But they are who they’ve always been: dancers. They are not actors. When they are on the dancing stage, they’re in their own element and flow naturally. When Lee (along with writers Brin Hill and Chris Parker) tasks them to act with some dramatic weight, their inexperience badly comes to the forefront. Ivan “Flipz” Velez and Jon “Do Knock” Cruz are great B-Boys, but they are not great actors. The scenes where they have to deliver emotion come across as artificial and mannered.
That’s not their fault, really. The dancers are there to provide their talents, so it’s hard to fault them when their acting ability is unconvincing. The same can’t be said about Josh Holloway. Looking like he walked straight off the set of Lost, Holloway gives an uninspired performance as Jason Blake, a drunk ex-basketball coach hired by an old friend (Laz Alonso) to lead a group of B-Boys and win the upcoming Battle of the Year. Holloway is miscast here; nothing about his demeanor hints toward urban culture. Jason runs the team like a drill sergeant, waking them up at 6am for twelve-hour training sessions. It’s strange to see a group of B-Boys following the orders of a person who clearly has never breakdanced before. And if he has, it sure doesn’t seem like it.
Speaking of weird casting choices, why is Chris Brown here? I’ll admit he is a talented dancer and performer, but he is not in the same class as the rest of the crew. He sticks out like a sore thumb, and during every dance scene he’s in, the heavy editing barely hides the gap between him and everyone else. Brown plays Rooster, a cocky (get it?) dancer whose tough attitude doesn’t mix well with the rest of the crew. He is arguably the biggest celebrity here, but contributes very little to the plot. Why is he included? The answer is simple: he is a well-known name put in to help sell the film. It’s one thing to see a famous person brought into a production, it’s another to see a person brought into a production simply because they’re famous.
I’m trying to find positive aspects to talk about, but they are few and far between. Outside of the dancing (which is obviously great), everything else barely manages to register an honest or genuine moment. The writing is a hodgepodge of underdog clichés: the dysfunctional kids from the streets, the reluctant leader fighting substance abuse, and the overwhelming odds they all have to overcome together. Clunky monologues dealing with “being a family” and how there’s “no ‘I’ in TEAM” border on being downright painful to watch. Holloway almost gives his speeches through clenched teeth, as though he can’t believe the stuff coming out of his mouth as much as we can’t. Characters are presented with no real purpose. Josh Peck plays Jason’s assistant Franklyn, whose only memorable characteristic is that his name is spelled with a “Y.” Caity Lotz disappears from the screen as quickly as she appears. She plays the crew’s choreographer, Stacy, but how much she actually adds is a complete mystery.
Benson Lee made a good film with Planet B-Boy, but with Battle of the Year, he went in the opposite direction. From the choppy editing style to the blatant product placement and clear jingoistic nature, very little can be praised. The dance scenes are as good as advertised, but what about everything in between? I’m sure Lee meant well showcasing a celebrated dance tournament, but there wasn’t enough character development to pull these people outside of just being archetypes. Is it too much to ask for great dancing and a great story? Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QibqRB9Gs9k&w=560&h=315]