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Dustin Putman

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Battlefield America  (2012)
Directed by Chrisopher B. Stokes.
Cast: Marques Houston, Mekia Cox, Tristen Carter, Lynn Whitfield, Tracey Heggins, Christopher Michael Jones, JoJo Wright, Valarie Pettiford, Gary Anthony Sturgis, Big Boy, Zach Belandres, Ricky Harris, Chandler Kinney, Michael Toland, Camren Bicondova, Edward Mandell.
2012 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements involving some drug material, and for some language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 29, 2012.
From the director to the lead star right down to the title font and one-sheet of hip-hop dancers shucking a jive against a pitch-black background, "Battlefield America" is beyond shameless in its attempt to precisely emulate 2004's "You Got Served," only with pint-sized ruffians in the place of fleet-footed young adults. Here's the other difference: though the same guy, Christopher B. Stokes, is at the helm (with co-writing assistance from Marques Houston), the earlier film, for as silly and immature and inconsequential as it might have been, was at least competently made. By comparison, "Battlefield America" has got to be one of the most technically inept feature films to see the light of day in years. A stirring pot of so many spare clichés that it soon becomes its own laughing stock, the movie inadvertently works as a spoof like 2009's "Dance Flick" despite wearing on its sleeve heightened emotions so maudlin and overpoweringly earnest it could only have been intended as high drama. If that weren't enough, dialogue is embarrassingly on-the-nose, the editing has been done with a gummed-up chainsaw—scenes start and end with no rhythm, let alone a beginning or ending—and the dance set-pieces are an incoherent series of split-second shots that make no sense or do the performers any favors. Clearly they know how to dance, so why not let them do their thing? The haphazard handling of the picture's would-be bread and butter is frustrating, but not as much as sitting through the other 80 minutes of bad soap-opera filler.

Sean Lewis (Marques Houston) is a hot-shot agent on his way toward making partner at a top L.A. marketing firm. When he is slapped with a DUI after a few too many drinks, he faces 120 hours of community service in lieu of jail time. Believing that manual labor is too good for him, Sean convinces the fetching Sara Miller (Mekia Cox) down at the local outreach center to give him a different assignment—that is, to take care of six kids and teach them to boogie in preparation for the Battlefield America Dance Competition. Sean knows nothing about children or dance, promptly hiring a proper instructor to teach them, but by the very nature that he is there and occasionally tosses off hacky pearls of wisdom in their direction, they become helplessly attached to him. When Sean's dedication to the dance troupe, appropriately nicknamed "Bad Boys," puts his career in danger, he must make a decision: return to his full-time job once his service hours have been completed, or risk it all so that he can be these kids' moral support as the dance contest edges closer.

"Battlefield America" has to be seen to be believed, but please don't see it. It's the kind of film that has gone so wrong in so many ways, it legitimately makes one wonder how it got made without a single person raising so much as an eyebrow at the malarkey being put on camera. Never mind that this movie imagines prepubescent dancing gangs who show up in dank, sketchy alleyways and parking lots to do battle while spitting out lines such as, "What are you doing on our turf?" Never mind that their dances primarily involve crotch-grabbing whilst imitating androids suffering from short circuits. Never mind that the kids Sean is assigned to (none of them older than ten) ruthlessly beat him up at first sight (they're into "thug shizzle") and don't hesitate to comment on the sight of "fine-ass females." Never mind that the tactless Sean starts off spitting put-downs at them in return, calling one ever so slightly chubby boy so many variations on "fatso" that he ought to have been locked up and given additional community service hours. Never mind that all is forgotten and Sean and his charges start a love fest despite, as far as can be told, all Sean does is stand in the corner with his arms crossed while a dance teacher gives them lessons. Sure, they make it to the dance competition as finalists, but never mind that when the film began they were seen as so bad all they knew was the "Electric Slide." Never mind that there isn't one scene leading up to this turnaround where the boys are seen practicing steps or learning choreography. But never mind all that.

In a better project, under the guidance of a proper filmmaker, Marques Houston (2004's "Fat Albert") and Mekia Cox (2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") might be pretty good actors. As Sean and Sara, who begin a tentative romance as he mentors the kids at the community center, Houston and Cox sell their parts with proper conviction, even when asked to behave in unbelievable ways or utter hamstrung dialogue. "You always know how to make me smile," Sara tells Sean after barely one date together. When he sees his profession in jeopardy and must ultimately pull away from his service project, Sara and the boys tearfully and irately treat him like he's just murdered all their mothers. Ridiculously overwrought, this story development proves all the more asinine because Sean really hasn't helped the boys at all through the duration of the film. He hasn't even been the one to teach them how to dance.

"Battlefield America" culminates in a dance-off, hilariously established as taking place at L.A.'s Staples Center despite the interior looking like an Off-Off-Broadway black-box theatre. Sure enough, at least one disapproving parent and another doubting boss show up just in time to discover the worth in what the kids—and Sean—have been doing. Do the "Bad Boys" come out on top? Who cares? It's all cut together in seemingly random order. More amusing is to consider even more ways the film stumbles. Every time a character learns a lesson, they announce it. Every time they have something important to say, they pull out a folded piece of paper and read a pre-written message—even if it's literally one sentence long. Want more? How about the hideous scene set at the funeral of young Eric's (Tristen Carter) cancer-suffering mother where he wails for her while knocking, then literally slamming his fists, on the top of the casket? "Cringe-inducing" doesn't even begin to describe it. "Battlefield America" is on a plane of awful few movies reach, yet it doesn't quite warrant a star rating of zero. On whatever planet director Christopher B. Stokes comes from, his heart seems to have been in the right place. By Earth's standards, he's made the equivalent of a small-scale disaster.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman