Everything about Benson Lee’s predictable dance flick “Battle of the Year” strikes me as old. Not classic, and not obsolete — just off the mark by a few years, as if Lee intended to capitalize on the relevancy of his cast and subject matter, but ended up being too late to the game.
Start with Josh Holloway, cast in “Battle” as a down-on-his-luck coach hired to train a team of arrogant dancers for an international competition. Holloway’s hit show, “Lost,” left the airwaves in 2010, and he hasn’t done much since. “Battle” also tries to get audiences to root for Chris Brown by tapping him to play a cocky dancer called Rooster in Holloway’s band of breakdancing competitors. But the 24-year-old singer-dancer has been persona non grata in the public eye since the 2009 domestic violence charges that were filed following an assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna.
Lee is attempting to keep a spotlight shining on b-boy culture, an aggressive style of street dancing that consists of body-contorting twists, flips, leaps, spins and poses set to hip-hop music. Lee showcased this next level of competitive breakdancing in his award-winning 2008 documentary “Planet B-Boy,” and a feature film building on that awareness makes complete sense . . . just not five years later, when the fad appears to have faded.
What saves “Battle” from complete irrelevancy is the undisputable fact that a scrappy underdog formula tends to work no matter what time period or sport. Here, it’s competitive dance, where the best of the best train for the annual Battle of the Year held in Montpellier, France. Tired of watching innovative Korean, German and French squads excel at a dance style the Americans invented, entrepreneur Dante Graham (Laz Alonso) hires Jason Blake (Holloway) to motivate and train a b-boy “Dream Team” for the upcoming competition.
At that point, Graham actually makes a comparison to the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball squad that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley — yet another outdated reference in a screenplay overflowing with them.
When Lee stages a dance sequence, “Battle” actually has swagger. The director understands how to shoot b-boy dancing so that the choreographed moves aren’t lost in a flurry of choppy edits. Lee also fills his young ensemble with legitimate dancers, guys like Ivan “Flipz” Velez and Jon “Do Knock” Cruz. And Brown, for all of his real-world problems, is a spectacular dance talent who has legitimate screen presence.
But the dialogue bridging the energetic dance scenes consists almost entirely of hollow coach speak. The film’s course is woefully apparent, and we barely get to know the individuals on Blake’s Dream Team, so we don’t get invested in their success or failure.
And in today’s culture, when such competitive dance programs as “So You Think You Can Dance?” and “Dancing With the Stars” clog network television schedules, why would you pay good money, and wade through tired clichés, to watch on the big screen what you can get at home for free?
O’Connell is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains language and some rude behavior. 109 minutes.