Benson Lee's fictionalization of his superlative documentary opts for storytelling clichés rather than compelling dance sequences
If Jon M. Chu transformed the “Step Up” franchise into the gold standard for modern dance movies, “Battle of the Year 3D” is a runner-up at best.
Shepherded to the screen by Benson Lee, the writer-director of the acclaimed documentary “Planet B-Boy,” the film exudes authenticity in its depiction of the annual dance competition — most notably in acknowledging America's poor standing within the competitive community. But its dramatization of a U.S. dream team's journey to the international showcase is leaden with predictable character types and a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of storytelling clichés, neither of which its well-executed but oddly infrequent dance sequences are able to overcome.
Josh Holloway (TV's “Lost”) plays Jason Blake, a former basketball coach enlisted by longtime pal and mogul Dante Graham (Laz Alonso) to whip a team of dancers into shape for the Battle of the Year. Despite his burgeoning alcoholism and a few personal reservations — “I ain't that guy any more,” he grunts — Blake agrees, recruiting Graham's sharp-witted, dance-obsessed intern Franklyn (Josh Peck) as an assistant.
Ditching Graham's group of complacent show-offs to assemble his team of the best American dancers from across the country, Blake begins the arduous process of molding a group of individual stars into a cohesive unit. But as dancers like Rooster (Chris Brown) and Do Knock (Jon Cruz) compete for the spotlight, Blake finds his skills as a coach tested, even as Graham begins to exert pressure on him to deliver a team that can bring home top honors at the competition.
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While previous dance films have mined similar territory to one another, narratively speaking, for their tales of adversity, personal expression, competition and achievement, “Battle of the Year 3D” feels like a compendium of every possible storyline audiences have ever seen. Holloway's coach hopes to redeem himself and repair the hole torn in his life by personal tragedy. Peck's intern is desperate for recognition, and later, validation. Brown's dancer is talented and cocky, but in desperate need of some humility. Another dancer pins his aspirations to help his family escape poverty on winning the competition.
And so on and so on. In fact, the only remotely new development in the film is the introduction of an openly gay dancer, whose general determination to earn respect from his teammates is hardly novel, but whose presence at least acknowledges a marginalized group within the b-boy community for the first time on film.
Lee's camerawork is effective, particularly during the dance sequences, where he manages to create a consistent and comprehensible geography for the choreography. But he lacks the inventiveness of Chu or “Step Up Revolution” director Scott Speer — most conspicuously in terms of utilizing 3D — and chronicles the group's behavior off the dance floor with a perfunctory and uninspiring flatness.
Given the fact that Lee adapted his own documentary into a fictional film, it seems reasonable to expect that “Battle of the Year” would possess the same sort of fluidity and intimacy as its predecessor. But the filmmaker seems hamstrung by the beats of a boilerplate underdog story that his actors cannot elevate, and he only manages to inject it with subversive twists in the final act, which serves as a last-minute distraction from the rest of the film's utter conventionality.
Amusingly, Lee himself seems to be aware that his fictional debut is inferior to the documentary that inspired it: During an early scene, two characters talk unironically at length about how amazing “Planet B-Boy” is. Or perhaps he's simply aware that he borrowed the wrong elements — or just not enough of the right ones — from his earlier film, focusing on the personal foibles and petty squabbles of his clichéd characters rather than their awe-inspiring acrobatic feats.
But in chronicling a competition that Lee clearly knows no one is simply going to let you take the lead, Lee aimed for modesty over spectacle, and most critically, platitudes over power moves. All of which is why “Battle of the Year 3D” effectively does for dance movies what Graham's team did before Blake took over as coach — namely, serve as a placeholder for something better.