The dancing isn’t much, and neither is the dance movie

By Gary Clift

One of the curiosities of the “dance contest” movie genre is that the films belonging to the type have had almost nothing to do with dance.

Remember the “Step Up” films, with Channing Tatum or vice versa, and their successors? These modestly budgeted “chick flics” feature teen-agers and young adults who like to perform. Usually the characters are struggling against a perceived establishment that doesn’t want to give their Michael Jackson ballroom moves the sort of appreciation they deserve, doggone it.

To give an excuse for the performances, then, the story is always some version of the one popularized in the movie “Rocky.” An underdog trains for a big competition, and we see about as much of the actual dancing as we saw actual fighting in Sylvester Stallone’s first movie as the boxer.

The latest dance contest movie is “Battle of the Year,” directed by newcomer Benson Lee. It is probably the most likable of its type, but it is also so very Hollywood that it is the most predictable and the gentlest.

The story is about an annual contest between nation teams of break dancers. But “break” is not a term the movie uses, preferring “b.” And “team” is a term the movie only comes to use after a first reel in which the word “crew” has been used thirteen times. Imagine the drinking game.

The U.S. has not won the international contest in years. A former breaker (now running a big company catering to “hip hop” tastes) is concerned. He hires a former dance contest teammate of his—we’re now in the second generation of this stuff—to recruit and coach the American representative to the contest.

Blake (Josh Holloway) is the usual Rocky figure. He had some success as a high school basketball coach, but he has since been beaten up by life. We find him drunk and disheveled in a disordered house. But for some reason we never learn he agrees to sign his old pal’s contract and to pick dancers from the teams participating in a national contest.

He also hires an assistant, who is always full of good but quiet advice. One of Franklyn’s recommendations is that they hire a choreographer. They settle on the assistant’s candidate, a blonde named Stacy (played by the always smiling Caity Lotz).

Together they get through all the required business, including lots of training montages, often shown in split-screen. Black picks twenty-one dancers to take out to a deserted prison for training, which begins every day at six a.m. He gives them a speech of warnings with the refrain “You will be gone.” Then he starts kicking one guy a week off the team for nine weeks leading up to the big contest in France.

One dancer in the prison is sneaking out nights. Two others fight at every opportunity. One tall guy doesn’t (for reasons never explained) take to one thick guy. Eventually we are told that the team’s real problem is that they don’t care about each other. Somehow—I wasn’t sure how—this problem gets resolved just before the team captain suffers an injury on the evening before the flight to Europe.

Then at the contest, the team gets into a brawl. But then they get ready to perform on the first night and do well enough to appear in the final four, a set of three face-to-face competitions that will decide the championship.

What dancing there is here is acrobatic and heavily stylized. But it is also chopped up into pretty small runs. And the dancers have some trouble moving in unison when that is required.

So the dancing here isn’t much. And neither, really, is “Battle of the Year” the dance movie.

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