Dance battle movies—Step Up and its ilk—have become the musicals of their generation. They may be formulaic in the extreme, but they’re athletic extravaganzas, celebrating great skill and the art of b-boys and b-girls.
They may wear the veneer of “street” and “edgy,” but parents appreciate how harmless they are.
Battle of the Year touches on how the rest of the world has embraced b-boy culture, but how they’re no longer perceived as cutting edge or cool in the United States.
That worries the Sean Combs-like impresario, Dante (Laz Alonso): “How long before hip-hop isn’t cool?”
He has to protect his music, dance and fashion empire by putting American b-boys back on top. He hires an old dance buddy, W.B. (for “Wonder Bread”), now a grieving, alcoholic ex-basketball coach (Josh Holloway of Lost). W.B. has to get himself up to speed on the current state of dance, then recruit and coach a “dream team” of the best of America’s best to take on the rest of the world, which has passed America by and long dominated the annual b-boy Olympics known as “BOTY,” the Battle of the Year.
That team consists of assorted arrogant, chip-on-their-shoulder showoffs, because that’s what it takes to succeed. Actual star dancers such as Do Knock and Flipz are mixed with others, including singer Chris Brown.
And helping coach is Jewish hip-hop authority “Franklyn with a y,” played by Josh Peck.
Benson Lee, director of the definitive documentary on the worldwide phenomenon, Planet B-Boy, co-wrote and directed this, and immodestly has characters watch that film and sing its praises.
Holloway cannot even hint at a real dance past, so the movie fakes that by having his coach run his guys through drills (in split-screen sequences).
Peck, once of TV’s Drake & Josh, one-time star of The Wackness, has a small, supporting role but is given top billing. In this case, that means his every scene includes overly made-up and coiffed close-ups. It’s laughable.
But tabloid darling Brown more than holds his own with this crew, apparently not even needing a dance double. The dance scenes—especially those involving teams from Germany, France and Korea—take the b-boy moves to the next level.
And there are plenty of easy, undemanding laughs, the best lines coming from Peck’s assistant coach.
“You look like a gazelle out there,” he praises his boss. “A gazelle with arthritis.”
Which, while it doesn’t describe the movie, does hit this genre right in the bull’s-eye. But then, the beauty of Step Up and all its tired imitators is that the audience they’re shooting for has no idea that there have been 20 or 30 movies exactly like this one that came before it.
Battle of the Year (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆