It’s one thing for the French to beat us at speed-typing in “Populaire” — but hip-hop? Apparently that had been the case for 15 years, with US teams always losing in the annual b-boy (a.k.a. breakdancing) “Battle of the Year” in Montpellier, France. And if it wasn’t the French beating us, it was those darn Koreans. So much for American exceptionalism.
In “Battle of the Year” the film, director Benson Lee (“Planet B-Boy”) takes this premise and subjects it to a dramatic mash-up of sports movie and musical genres. Though formulaic, the film adds pizzazz to the old conventions. But when it comes to the dancing itself, it resorts to the scattershot style that has been the downfall of musicals in particular and movies in general. By the time it reaches the final showdown, this “Battle” has been lost.
But it starts with high hopes. Seeing that the dismal record of the American b-boy crews he sponsors has been bad for business, hip-hop mogul Dante Graham (Laz Alonso) calls in homey Jason Blake (Josh Holloway) to coach a new team into shape. Blake is a white guy who was into hip-hop long before Eminem, but left the scene to become a basketball coach. Lately, though, times have been tough for Blake, and since it’s mandatory in such movies for coaches to be drunks who rehabilitate themselves while turning a ragtag team into champions, Blake has been hitting the bottle since his wife and kid got killed in a car crash.
And ragtag the team is, in a generic kind of way. It includes blacks, an Irish kid, Hispanics, Jews, a gay, and a homophobe — 22 hopefuls in all. What they have in common is that they are all lower class, and none is female. As in “American Idol,” Blake bumps off one every week during their draconian training period until they reach the final 13 — the “Dream Team.” By then he’s off the booze, the kids have bonded, and they are ready to take on the world.
At its best “Battle” offers agreeable performances and dance numbers that evoke martial arts flicks and “West Side Story.” At its worst it sinks into banality and 3-D rapid-fire shots of whirling, indistinguishable bodies. Americans used to be good at stuff like this; maybe it’s time for the French and Koreans to give it a try.