The "b" in b-boying might stand for breaking, but you won't hear it anywhere in All Out War. This is a movie that presumes you already know that, or else you wouldn't be watching. We're deep inside the urban subcultural inner sanctum here, and anybody who has to ask the question is in the wrong place.
The boys who do the breaking in this movie are competing for their lives. This is not to say that the highly ritualized, boxing-ringed break contests – called "battles" – they train so arduously for are matters of life and death, but that they legitimize your life as a b-boy. They prove you've got the skills, the moves and, most importantly, the commitment to dedicate both mind and spirit to the dance, that you're in it for real. If not, you're just a "biter" – somebody who steals moves and claims them as his own – and there's no lower form of "b" than that.
To the outside world, it looks like these kids – and some of them, it should be noted, are hardly kids, and have kids of their own – are practising a quaintly outmoded form of downtown street theatre once known as breakdancing. We might wonder how they got stuck in the same time loop that contains VW-sized cassette ghetto blasters, pastel-yellow Chuck Taylor high-tops, skull-print headbands and the Human Beat Box. Hasn't anybody told them we've moved on? That even the South Bronx serves Frappuccinos?
They'd probably be grateful to hear that, for if there's one thing shared by the almost religiously devoted competitive b-boys in filmmaker Robert Pilichowski's energizing, pavement-up appreciation of the endurance of b-boying, it's that this is no fad and it's better off for finally being forgotten by a fickle media world. With the expiration of mainstream pop cultural interest, the dilettantes have dispersed and only the real warriors remain. It's been left to the hard core to maintain the legacy, refine the form and play the beat forward. And to never, like ever, use the word "breakdance."
As Alien Ness, the film's oldest b-boy – a Bronx-born lifer with a sense of history and kids of his own – describes himself, "I'm a survivor." In this observation the defining move of the dance, in which the body hits the ground, spins upright on whatever point of axis lands first and bounces right back up again, is all the metaphor you really need. In this kind of dancing, the body is the equivalent of an inflatable punching doll – it gets back up no matter how hard it's hit.
It's no small credit to Pilichowski that he lets the dancers and dancing speak for themselves, and leaves all the history, analysis, socioeconomic reasoning and academic blather to the world outside. All Out War is a movie shaped to the scale and the attitude of these dead-serious take-no-prisoners competitors. The dancing itself might be hard, but the reason to do it is simple: You come from a place where you have nothing but your pride and your body, and an all-important goal – to leave "a legacy." Like graffiti or rapping in the Bronx in the early days, it's a way of leaving a mark that says you were there.
Sticking to the present-tense lives of b-boys preparing to "smoke some cats" at the King of the Ring throwdown in Toronto, Pilichowski allows the background stories of his subjects – Alien Ness (Luis Roberto Martinez), Dyzee (Karl Alba), Casper (Jesse Brown), Machine (Jeffrey McCann) – to emerge from the dull beat of daily lives. All are rooted in poverty and disrupted homes, some have come from violence and prison. For one or two the dancing has been a way of asserting an uncomplicated physical presence in a world they've felt ignored or shut out by; for a couple of others it's been a way of turning anger into a form of almost poeticized aggression, where kung fu meets Gene Kelly. You're still kicking ass, but nobody's getting hurt. One of them even breaks for God.
Whenever the movie actually gets into the ring, either literally during the competitions or figuratively as it focuses on the dancing, All Out War gets right down to the business of showing all it needs to tell. If you can watch these guys in action and still wonder why they're doing it, you probably also think they're breakdancing. Just don't say it out loud.
All Out War plays Thursday at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema as part of the NXNE festival.