Ostensibly concerned with reviving the art of b-boying, “Battle of the Year” proves far more effective as a feature-length testament to the wisdom of theater-hopping. Though it climaxes with a good quarter-hour of mind-boggling break moves that effortlessly deny the laws of both physics and anatomy, Benson Lee’s dance pic is so fatally frontloaded with endless training montages, awfully written, indifferently acted drama, sports-film platitudes and jaw-dropping product placements that only the hardiest of viewers will make it through to the payoff. With the presence of Chris Brown promising to attract and repel audiences in equal measure, modest box office beckons.
Taking place in an unacknowledged parallel universe where b-boying has emerged as the dominant one of hip-hop’s four elements (with rapping as invisible as graffiti writing, DJing and b-girling), “Battle of the Year” opens with a board meeting hosted by the Russell Simmons-like entrepreneur Dante Graham (Laz Alonso). A former breaker himself, Dante is determined to finance a top-level team for the international Battle of the Year (BOTY) b-boy tournament in Montpellier, whose importance is likened to nearly every major athletic competition save the Rugby World Cup.
Hoping to end a long dry spell for the Americans — who seem almost as likely to win the Rugby World Cup at this point — Dante recruits former dancer-turned-basketball coach-turned dissolute drunk and widower Jason Blake (Josh Holloway) to assemble a dream team of dancers and serve as coach.
Eventually culling more than a dozen ethnically diverse hotshots for his squad (played by a cadre of b-boys alongside wildly popular/reviled R&B star Brown), Blake hunkers the group down in an abandoned juvenile hall, with three months to whip them into shape. During the rare moments when they aren’t training in split-screen montages, the assembled dancers engage in tough-guy spats, sit through motivational speeches cribbed from a dozen sub-“Remember the Titans” sports dramas, and endure reality-show-like weekly eliminations. Aided by a nebbishy assistant coach (Josh Peck, providing the only intentional laughs to be had), Blake eventually hires a foxy choreographer (Caity Lotz), who makes a splashy entrance and spends the rest of the film supplying reaction shots.
To catch up with the international explosion of b-boying (BOTY is a Germany-founded, France-hosted competition dominated by South Koreans), Blake consults “Planet B-Boy,” an excellent 2008 documentary exploration of the tournament. Clips from that docu appear frequently throughout the film, always with a bug denoting its title in the corner a la local news broadcasts, and it’s referred to by one character as a “dope documentary … with like a billion hits on Netflix.” It’s worth mentioning that “Planet B-Boy” was also directed by Lee, who puzzlingly gives his old pic an “inspired by” credit on his new one. Yet these squicky salvos of self-promotion don’t even register as the film’s most eyebrow-raising advertorial indulgences.
Blatant product placement onscreen has grown so prevalent as to be largely unnoticeable, and pics like “The Internship” have further blurred the lines between fully integrated branded entertainment and traditional cinema. Yet even within this context, “Battle of the Year’s” shilling is remarkable. Perhaps the loving odes to Puma sneakers are understandable coming from dancers, as is their excitement to receive gift bags full of Sony devices. (Even if no one outside a marketing department has likely ever uttered the phrase, “This is the new Sony tablet — it’s the future!”) Yet when this same enthusiasm is applied to Braun’s new line of electric shaving products, a certain Rubicon of shamelessness has been crossed. As one high-school-aged viewer at the screening attended was heard to remark after a particularly obnoxious plug, “This is some bullshit.”
Aside from that, the filmmakers have recruited a wonderful array of dancers here, all of whom are more than deserving of such a mainstream showcase. Brown proves a serviceable actor and a generally excellent dancer, although his lack of lifelong b-boy credentials occasionally marks him as the sore thumb among all the ringers. (Predictably, the script contrives to exclude him from the more demanding routines.)
The pic’s centerpiece dance sequence, with which our hardy Yank heroes dazzle a hostile foreign crowd straight out of “Rocky IV,” is a magnificent piece of choreography, juggling Olympic-level aerial gymnastics with a savvy theme tracing the evolution of American dance music from swing to hip-hop. A frenzied final battle between the Americans and the cocky Koreans is similarly filled with awe-inspiring freezes, flips and flares, yet the filmmakers’ attempt to gild the lily by recruiting cable TV personalities Terrence J and Sway Calloway to scream inane, mile-a-minute voiceover commentary throughout proves distracting.
The 3D camerawork is fantastic during the dance scenes and functional everywhere else, and the sound design is noticeably sophisticated. Pilar McCurry’s soundtrack is perhaps lighter on traditional hip-hop than one might expect, though any music supervisor smart enough to unearth Digital Underground’s “Same Song” deserves a nod of recognition.