“It’s like ‘Fame’ but with bloods and crips.”
If only it was really that, since the above is a film I would be very interested in seeing.
Nearing the second act of Benson Lee’s Battle of the Year 3D, one of the many self-involved hip hoppers makes a stand that dancing isn’t a sport but rather an art form. Odd statement, since rarely have I encountered, at least in my career as a dancer, any admirer of movement who prefers to deny dance’s true identity as a sport while simply substituting it as ‘just an art form.’ But here is where Brin Hill and Chris Parker’s screenplay feels it must indulge in this never ending debate and have our redemptive hero use basketball icon, Magic Johnson, as an example for the beauty of movement meshing with a textbook definition of ‘sports.’ “It was like poetry in motion,” he waxes about Johnson’s impeccable skill, and with that swift subjective nugget of knowledge, Battle of the Year 3D proclaims that dance is officially a sport but the lack of subtlety in this given moment shines a light on the film’s formulaic intentions.
By lifting the plot structure, beat for beat, from benchmark sports films like Miracle and Remember the Titans and fitting it around dance, the film wants to bridge the gap, cinematically, between sports films and the Dance Movie (a wannabe subgenre that I raged about here). Unfortunately, its direct aspirations ironically leave dance on the sidelines, forfeiting it to what other movies refer to as character development and emotional arcs, but again Hill and Parker don’t possess the subtlety or skill to achieve these far off goals. The film trudges through it’s checklist of plot points long outstaying its welcome, building to zero moments, earning many unintentional laughs, and coughing up an extra dimension that ends up being mostly unnecessary until the unfulfilling climax. Other than Josh Peck’s genuine comic charm, Battle of the Year 3D is a desperate attempt to break ground, muddled in montages and doused in overbearing product placement, wasting its talented dancers who rattle off dry dialogue and insulting the underappreciated talent of Lost’s Josh Holloway.
Jason Blake (Holloway) has lost it all, finding solace in bottles of whiskey following the tragic death of his wife and son in a car accident. When approached by childhood friend/magazine CEO Dante Graham (Miracle at St. Anna’s Laz Alonso), sponsor for the USA’s submission to the annual Battle of the Year b-boy competition in the France, to coach the dance crew, Blake expectedly pushes his friend away. However, he reluctantly gives in and before long is facing a group of twenty hot-headed hip hoppers, none of which use their ‘Christian’ names any more (Flipz, Do-Knock, Rooster, Legacy), with three months to mold them into a unified team and train them to be champions. Blake uses his background a basketball coach – because basketball and hip-hop dancing are apparently interchangeable these days – to build a dream team out of the disorderly misfits, which leads to the emergence of a family, something Blake believed he had lost indefinitely many years ago.
The first comparison that people will make is that Battle of the Year 3D is a Step Up carbon copy, but in truth, BotY doesn’t achieve even a fraction of what that franchise does. While I’ve only subjected myself to the original and most recent of the Step Up films, I can surmise that the second and third installments cover mostly the exact same ground. What makes those films watchable, for me anyway, is that they understand their purpose. No, they aren’t musicals and in no way compare to classics like Singin’ In the Rain or even Dirty Dancing, but their intentions are clear and they excel at their exhibition of movement. In retrospect, the first Step Up also gave us Channing Tatum who within the last couple of years has proven to be a true performer of value with an impressive dance background to boot. The most recent of the Step Up’s may have a thinly sliced plot line and flimsy dialogue, but it knows how to build to its signature moments – the stunning dance sequences that are expertly choreographed and captured utilizing its skilled cast where they shine best. Like the Fast and the Furious franchise, it ducks through the in-between so it can impress you with what it knows best. I admire its self-awareness, but Battle of the Year 3D thinks of itself in greater terms and it’s here that the film has already missed its cue and doesn’t know how to recover.
To make matters worse, Battle of the Year 3D doesn’t even try to level itself out by making room for its cast’s abounding talents. The majority of the film (teetering on 50-60 percent) is presented via After Effects templated montages eclipsing the passage of time and the crew’s 90-day rehearsal schedule. The choreography by Dave Scott is presented one eight-count at a time, hardly making use of the 3D spectacle or really honing in on what should be the film’s biggest strength. Surprisingly, we don’t see a full, uncut dance sequence until the third act just leading into the climax. While the flick thinks it may be saving its best for last by dropping talent reel-like tidbits of dance through the first two acts, the ‘spectacular’ dance number we all have been waiting for ends up feeling washed out and unfulfilling. It doesn’t help that the 3D post-conversion (or possibly an upped frame rate) and choppy editing becomes jarring, distracting, and more reminiscent visually of flipbook. It’s a sigh-heavy moment where the film really lets itself down.
Director Benson Lee, whose documentary, Planet B-Boy, is the inspiration for BotY, might have had a knack for capturing the authenticity of hip hop dance through archival footage and interviews, but at the helm of a feature he seems to be totally lost. There’s a beauty in letting movement involve you, which is why the best films about dance rarely splice up a dance sequence like it’s an action scene from the Bourne films. Think Saturday Night Fever’s most famed sequence where John Travolta solos on the dance floor, the camera lingers for extended moments before bringing us to a new vantage point. It encapsulates Travolta’s full stature bringing his abilities to the forefront. The editing is natural and well-conceived, whereas in Battle of the Year it’s sporadic and arbitrary. Come the end, it’s really just an extended commercial for Lee’s documentary – some clips of which actually find their way into the film and is referred to as the b-boy’s ‘bible’ – and annoying, overbearing product placement (co-critic Zack Sharf commented on one scene, “It’s raining Sony”).
There’s not even much to say about the performances, other than to beg producers to find more acceptable uses of the actual talent that can be yanked out of this dud. Josh Holloway has been given close to no work since Lost’s end, and while every emotional moment he’s given comes off as laughable given the context, if this were a true sports movie, I would have been more than satisfied with his performance. Pop singer Chris Brown feels like gimmick casting, and his ‘boys will be boys’-like comments toward the single female character in the film is a little unnerving given the performer’s real-life history. Though, we all know he is a very talented dancer – we’ve all seen the “Run It” music video – albeit questionable actor. As for Drake & Josh star Josh Peck, he’s actually at his best. The script provides him with serviceable moments and he turns averagely funny lines into ones that had me cracking up. For those of us who happily progressed from Keenan & Kel to Drake & Josh and watched the hefty comic slim down over the years, I’m happy to report that the guy has still got it.
Battle of the Year 3D deserves to be retitled Montage: A Dance Movie for its dull progression from start to finish using almost nothing but sloppy time lapses, sacrificing its strengths and compressing them into a single, undoing sequence and manufacturing cookie cutter characters that relay vomit with words instead of actual dialogue. It’s the worst kind of Step Up rip off and sends dance’s presentation in film back another five or so years. As we slip further and further away from the golden dance films of Hollywood’s past, and get no closer to deeming dance a definitive sport in the public eye, Battle of the Year 3D has none of the right moves and explains for itself why it was delayed nine full months.
Save yourself the time and watch Planet B-Boy, and someone get cracking on that version of Fame with bloods and crypts, because that right there is one hell of an idea.
Review by Mike Murphy