In the sole moment of shame and/or self-consciousness in the unintentionally hilarious dance movie Battle Of The Year, the protagonist concedes that “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’” is a silly cliché. But that doesn’t keep the film from employing the saying with deadly seriousness, or repeating it later. Battle Of The Year is shameless even by dance-movie standards. It’s as if the filmmakers challenged themselves to outdo the Step Up and Breakin’ movies for pure, unadulterated cheese. All that’s missing is a troubled teen recreation center for the film’s ragtag group of talented-but-undisciplined multicultural street dancers to save by winning the big talent show with the $50,000 prize. Instead, this motley crew of ragtag street dancers has to settle for dancing for national honor and each other, once they’ve overcome impossible odds and become a true team.
The film hauls out these musty old tropes like a grizzled, broken-down alcoholic sorting through a box of precious souvenirs from the good years when he still had hope—a cliché the film also lovingly recycles. A scruffy, habitually wifebeater-clad Josh Holloway plays that grizzled, broken-down boozer. Derrek was once a promising breakdancer and championship basketball coach whose charmed life hit a bleak downward spiral after his wife and son died in a car accident.
Judging by his funereal aura, Derrek has apparently spent every waking moment since the accident staring at a framed photo of his dead family and swigging from the flask he gazes at meaningfully throughout the film, as if gauging the exact level of his moral dissipation. The flask of shame is both a key to his character and a prop designed to be heroically discarded at the appropriate time—though somewhat puzzlingly, he does continue to drink wine and champagne through the end of the film.
This booze cruise to the bottom is interrupted by an unexpected, initially unwelcome visit from wealthy hip-hop mogul Dante (Laz Alonso), who wants Derrek to coach an American breakdancing team in the Battle Of The Year, an epic real-life event that pits the greatest street dancers in the world against one another in a battle for international supremacy. (A bleached-blonde Chris Brown plays Rooster, the most mercurial of those dancers, but considering the unfortunate baggage the singer brings to the role, it seems perverse to ask audiences to root for him playing an angry, rage-filled hothead who gets into violent altercations over women.) Derrek is initially reluctant, until he’s assured that he’ll be allowed to coach the team his way, with a tough-love approach and an endless series of stirring inspirational speeches—some of which, sure enough, stress the absence of the vowel “I” in the word “team.” They might as well be purloined from Hoosiers and its many imitators. Battle Of The Year doesn’t delineate between the hackneyed tropes of underdog sports movies and the groaning conventions of 3-D dance movies: It loves all clichés equally, and believes in their truth and power with an almost religious conviction.
Battle Of The Year director Benson Lee piles montage upon montage upon montage in a crazy rush to get to the end, and when that isn’t enough, he and his editorial team amp up their assault on the senses by fracturing the frame via split-screen. This ADD approach is particularly disastrous in the dance sequences, which are cut into a dizzying blur of flying limbs.
Like the similarly shameless feature adaptation of Steve Harvey’s Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, Battle Of The Year doubles as a feature-length infomercial for its source material—in this case, Lee’s well-received 2007 documentary Planet B-Boy, which the Battle Of The Year characters reference without a hint of irony as the seminal hip-hop documentary, and the b-boy bible. Then again, between all the montage sequences, inspirational speeches, shouting matches, and product placement, not just for Planet B-Boy but also Sony and Braun razors, it’s remarkable that the film found time for dance sequences at all. While the film is ostensibly about the glory of dance, Battle Of The Year often treats its dance sequences like an afterthought.
Battle Of The Year is dumb fun and a guilty pleasure, full of unintentional yuks, but unlike the Step Up movies it closely resembles, it isn’t distinguished by impressive filmmaking or virtuoso dance sequences, but rather by persistent, strangely ingratiating shamelessness. It isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but B-movie lovers who like their dance movies flashy, fun, and spectacularly dumb shouldn’t mind.