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Breakin’ (1984)

Breakin’, released in 1984, was Cannon’s first significant hit. Part of this may have had to do with MGM’s influence as U.S. distributor. They, quite possibly, ponied up a bit more for promotion than the notoriously shoestring Cannon Group could. Or maybe people were just really into break-dancing at the time. Whatever the case, Breakin’ grossed a staggering $39 million domestically on a budget that couldn’t have been higher than $2 million (if it was, something went seriously awry). Compare that to Death Wish II, which netted less than half that amount despite having a bigger star and a built-in audience.

Breakin’ has all the hallmarks of a Golan-Globus production: bad performances, awful sets, bizarre turns of plot, low stakes, occasionally surreal mise-en-scène. Why, then, did I watch all 86 minutes with a goofy smile on my face? I attribute it to the heady combination of breezy badness and the clear sense of fun from the actors. The stars (Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo Quinones, Michael Chambers) were clearly hired for their dancing ability above all, but they’re obviously having a great time making this movie—because they’re not good enough actors to fake that sense of fun and camaraderie.

The story follows the trials and tribulations of Kelly (Dickey), a jazz dancer whose career has stalled because she won’t sleep with the influential people who could put her on top (so to speak). After a dance-class friend coaxes her into driving him to Venice Beach, Kelly witnesses the exuberant break-dancing team of Ozone (Quinones) and Turbo (Chambers). Shortly thereafter, two improbable events change her life: Kelly has a slew of terrible auditions, and the Ozone/Turbo team are trumped by the “Electro-Rockers,” who dare to trump the male-male dance partnership by throwing—gasp!—a girl into the mix. Even though their girl doesn’t do much beyond rhythmically aiming accusatory fingers at Ozone and Turbo, they feel they’ve lost. Kelly decides she’d rather team up with them than continue struggling to make ends meet as a professional jazz dancer.

Christopher McDonald, who’s made a career out of playing snobby pricks, plays Kelly’s agent. He delivers a really nice, surprising performance as a guy who’s dubious yet supportive of Kelly’s choices, and willing to risk his professional career for her and her dance team. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but he plays a genuinely warm, compassionate person. He’s also the only one in the entire cast who can act worth a damn, which lends credibility to the goofy story. His actions pretty much drive the second half: after witnessing a “street” performance by “TKO,” he becomes consumed with getting them a prestigious audition with a bunch of stuffed-shirt professionals.

The plot exists primarily to string together break-dancing sequences. Everything about it is silly and—well, I’d call it melodramatic, but none of the performers (McDonald included) seem to take the generic conflicts seriously enough for there to be any real drama. Oddly, this is beneficial to the film. If any amount of pathos, legitimate conflict, or reality had seeped into this movie, it would have obliterated the overwhelming sense of joy permeating every frame. Absurd moments like Kelly’s audition montage, during which she auditions for one part that calls for a tall blonde (even though the producers are clearly holding a photo depicting her brown hair and short stature) before donning a wig to unsuccessfully audition for another part that calls for a short brunette (even though, again, they’re holding the same photo of her brown hair and short stature), would cause me to quiver with rage in a movie that took itself seriously. Here, it’s just one part of the goofy, grin-inducing package.

Ultimately, nothing matters but the dancing. If you like break-dancing (I don’t), you’ll love this movie. The choreography is great, the dance sequences are well-shot (especially compared to the amateurish blocking during normal scenes), and the soundtrack is annoyingly toe-tapping.

Because break-dancing, Jheri curls, wispy mustaches, and half-shirts have passed out of mainstream popularity, Breakin’ exists mainly as a colorful snapshot of pop culture phenomena lost to the passage of time. The sunny depiction of “street thugs” and dance competitions make it a pleasant, nostalgia-saturated way to pass a couple of hours. Those looking for substance need not apply.

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