'Battlefield America' is sweet, not street
If you’re looking for a tough, streetwise film about urban kids who get together to enter a national hip-hop dance competition, “Battlefield America” is not your movie. Brought to you by Marques Houston and Chris Stokes, the creative team responsible for 2004’s “You Got Served,” it’s a competent heartwarmer about a self-absorbed business type who meets the love of his life at a community center and learns to be a father figure and a better man. The kids and their moves are just window dressing.
You wouldn’t think so from the opening credits, which show members of the mostly white Bang Squad — defending champions of Battlefield America, the dance competition that gives the film its title — strutting their stuff. (If you look closely, you’ll see two Boston-area kids in the mix: Kyle Brooks, who has the mohawk, and Edward Mandell, who does a breakdance solo.) But the film loses its edge as soon as the music stops.
The story line sticks to familiar TV-movie territory. Sean Lewis (Houston) is a marketing executive with a high-profile Los Angeles firm who’s about to make partner. Then a festive party evening ends badly when he’s stopped for driving under the influence. His attorney pulls a few strings and Sean manages to avoid jail time by agreeing to community service — which turns out to be teaching kids to dance at a local community center.
The good news is that Sarah Miller (Mekia Cox), the young woman who runs the center, is a knockout, and she in turn is knocked out by his good looks, if not his smooth talk. The bad news is that Sean is supposed to be working there full time for two weeks when he needs to be nailing down advertising accounts at the office. Also, the kids hate him. Oh, and he doesn’t know anything about dance.
Sean does, however, have a friend, Prime (Roxbury native and “So You Think You Can Dance” winner Russell Ferguson), who’s a dance champ, so he brings him in to turn the kids into a real crew. That would be good news for the film if we got to see Prime do much of anything, but he’s strictly secondary. The process by which the kids learn is invisible, and magical; in the space of just four weeks, they become a dope team called the Bad Boys and make it to the Battlefield America finals at a riotously noisy Staples Center in LA.
Along the way, they endure the usual personal trials and tribulations (drug-addict mother, anti-dancing mother, absentee father), they confront the Bang Squad (and its derisive captain, played by Christopher Jones), and they come to love Sean. But they’re not accorded the screen time that would allow them to emerge as individuals. And the “Chicago”-style fragmentation of the dance action ensures that you won’t be any more knowledgeable about their hip-hop moves at the end of the movie than you were at the beginning.
That leaves Sean and Sarah. A sweeter couple you couldn’t imagine — and you might not want to. Bright, beautiful, funny, and understanding, Sarah is Ms. Perfect in Every Way, and there’s not much Mekia can do about it. Houston (who wrote the screenplay with Stokes; Stokes directed) at least gets to act like a jerk well into the movie before coming to his senses and discovering that he can have it all. “Battlefield America” is a one-man show. Maybe the kids will get their turn in “Battlefield America II.”
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.