In the world of battle rapping, no one gets points for restraint or high-minded delicacy. Fortunately, those are two qualities rarely ascribed to veteran music video director Joseph Kahn, who skips giggling through minefields of controversy in his frenetic satire “Bodied.” Following a dweeby white grad student who accidentally becomes a rap battle celebrity, Kahn’s third feature is both a love letter to the foulmouthed poetry of battling, and an opportunity to subject one nuclear-grade subject after another – race relations, appropriation, cultural tourism – to the director’s puckish bad taste. Pummeling, overlong, and at times a bit too proud of its own provocations, “Bodied” is nonetheless a feverishly entertaining spectacle, and Kahn’s willingness to put every liberal piety on the Summer Jam screen proves intoxicating.
Unlike freestyling, battle rapping has less in common with contemporary hip-hop music than hip-hop’s early ancestor the Dozens, as two competitors take turns tearing one another to shreds in a cappella rhymes, their battles staged at underground events that are structured somewhere between bare-knuckle boxing matches and unusually antagonistic improv games. Into one such Oakland function walks Berkeley student Adam (Calum Worthy), eager to see his battle rap hero Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) in action. Naïve, jittery, and painfully awkward, Adam is officially there to do research for his thesis – unpromisingly titled “The Poetic Function of the N-Word in Battle Rap” – and he’s brought along his aggressively woke vegan girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), who disapproves of the misogynistic and homophobic insults that soon go flying.
Talking to Behn for his paper afterward in the parking lot, Adam ends up serving as his proxy when a punchline-challenged battler tries to bait him into an impromptu match, and surprises himself by dismantling the other newcomer with ease. It’s enough to get Adam an invitation to a proper battle, where he faces a Korean-American rapper named Prospek (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park). Initially too bashful to draw on any of the various racist quips he keeps hearing in his head, Adam finally starts letting loose with a volley of horribly politically incorrect invective, and suddenly the crowd is on his side. (For his part, Prospek is just impressed that Adam’s nasty stereotypes are Korean-specific, rather than a pan-Asian grab bag: “that’s culturally sensitive by battle rap standards.”)
Behn takes Adam under his wing and becomes an uneasy mentor as the Bay Area crew travels to L.A., where they’re also joined by the film’s lone female battler (Shoniqua Shandai), and their loose posse runs afoul of the hulking Megaton (Dizaster), whose battles often end with his opponents sucker punched on the floor. But Adam’s new avocation drives a wedge between him and Maya. And as he rises further, one wonders what will happen when his trigger-warning-happy classmates and poetry professor father (Anthony Michael Hall) get a load of his extra-curricular pursuits.
“Bodied” was scripted by Alex Larsen, better known as longtime Toronto battle rapper Kid Twist, who clearly he knows the territory well, and Kahn fills the film with similarly distinguished faces from the scene. (Eminem, whose “8 Mile” is the movie’s clear if tongue-in-cheek model, is among the producers.) By casting literal former Disney Channel star Worthy alongside a handful of battle-scarred veterans, Kahn pushes his fish-out-of-water themes to the point of absurdity, though Worthy does surprisingly well going toe-to-toe with the pros.
Perhaps the greatest strength of “Bodied” is that it never settles on any one particular target. Adam’s pearl-clutching liberal classmates are the subjects of the film’s most elaborate satire, as they authoritatively debate what is and isn’t racist over red wine at low-melanin dinner parties, eager to take offense on behalf of people they rarely seem to encounter in person. Yet the bullseye is most frequently pinned right on Adam’s back. His condescending politeness gets him dubbed MC Microaggression by Behn’s wife, and one hilariously over-the-top scene shows him practically leap out of his skin with jump-scare music cues every time a black man appears out of the shadows to congratulate him on his latest battle.
Less obviously, the film also asks us to ponder what it says about Adam that this ostensible progressive comes alive when he suddenly feels liberated to spew racial slurs in public. And in a milieu where nothing is off-limits, at what point does saying horrible things about other people as a pastime start to erode your basic sense of decency?
Best known for his loopy, hyper-referential videos like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Eminem’s “Without Me,” Kahn applied the same kitchen-sink sensibility to his last feature, “Detention,” and as funny as it often was, that film eventually buckled under the weight of its own rapid-fire cleverness. Here, he’s learned to hold back a bit, giving his better punchlines proper room to land, and resisting the urge to go meta at every opportunity. Only on relative terms, of course – “Bodied” is a consistently abrasive experience, full of extreme close-ups, smash cuts, and subliminal jabs galore. It all gets a bit exhausting by the end of the film’s two hours, but for once, Kahn has a subject as restless as he is.