Arts movie review

Even the dancing seems cliché

Rent Planet B-Boy instead

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Rooster (Chris Brown) showing his skills in Battle of the Year.
Matt Kennedy


Battle of the Year

Directed by Benson Lee

Starring Josh Holloway, Laz Alonso, and Josh Peck

Rated PG-13

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Jason Blake (Josh Holloway), a once successful basketball coach who turned to alcohol after the death of his wife and son, is recruited by his hip-hop big shot friend Dante Graham (Laz Alonso) to form a “Dream Team” of the best b-boys from cities all over the U.S. to compete in the largest international breaking competition, the eponymous Battle of the Year.

A basketball coach training dancers to work together as a crew because “coaching is coaching” is perhaps more believable than a teenager who learns karate by waxing a car and becomes a champion in two months, but don’t expect much more than the typical sports movie tropes. The crew strives to transcend their individualism and achieve the ever-elusive quality of synchronicity, which is one of the show criteria for judging b-boy competitions and the only reasonably developed theme of this movie.

Similar to real life, in which crews representing the U.S. did not appear in the final battles from 2002 to 2010, in this film, a crew from the U.S. hasn’t won the competition in fifteen years. Because b-boying was invented by young black and Latino people in New York in the 1970s, Dante wants Blake to bring the glory back to the nation where it all started. But b-boying has since become an international dance form, with top crews from Europe and Asia pushing the form to new limits, and the international reach of hip hop culture is emphasized by the split-screen, multilingual media coverage of the competition.

Here, the dancers are put in a tough spot that the film never resolves: The b-boys in the Dream Team are goaded into fighting for the top spot as though it’s their birthright as Americans, but they are also told not to be “ugly Americans” who act like they are entitled to win.

The movie is crammed with subplots — a rivalry over a girlfriend, a dancer overcoming his homophobia towards an openly gay b-boy, a cash-strapped father who sneaks out of the training camp to visit his family — and the character development is very unfocused. The lone b-girl responds to the catcalls of the crew by saying she likes men, not boys, and then we hear no more about her. It looked like the adorable assistant coach Franklyn (Josh Peck) was going to steal the show with his soft-spoken one-liners and shy likability, but the second half of the film doesn’t showcase him enough for this to become his breakout role.

Director Benson Lee is best known for his 2007 documentary Planet B-Boy, which was shamelessly plugged in Battle of the Year, though it is not actually available on Netflix Instant Watch in real life — you have to put it in your DVD queue. Planet B-Boy focuses on the stories of four individuals from different teams and not only shows more dancing but tells much more poignant stories about how the b-boys relate to their often unsupportive families.

The 3D experience doesn’t immerse the audience in the dance because the camera is still a tame distance away from the action. The dancing itself is not as interesting as that in Planet B-Boy, though in some scenes it does its work in telling the story, as when the Russian crew shows their superior cohesion with an impressive repertoire of partner acrobatics and the Dream Team responds with comparatively weak individual performances. The Korean crew has some whimsical moves that give an idea of what b-boying has become, but if you want to experience a range of styles and impressive power moves, you’re better off watching Planet B-Boy.