Best of the Best is a 1989 martial arts movie starring Eric Roberts. The film was made at a time when Americas infatuation with martial arts was starting to wane somewhat. Karate Kid (1984) and Karate Kid II (1986) had been huge commercial hits and martial arts films were seen as an easy way to guarantee a hit.
Best of the Best focuses on an invitational taekwondo tournament between team USA and their Korean counterparts. The team USA is made up of Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) who is a mild mannered Karate instructor, Virgil Keller (John Dye) a Buddhist with a dry wit, Sonny Grasso (David Agresta) a not to bright but pretty Italian from Detroit, Travis Brickley (Christopher Penn) a cowboy with a bad attitude and finally Alex Grady (Eric Roberts) a widowed single father. The team are to be trained by Coach Frank Couzo (James Earl Jones) a veteran martial arts coach who wants to win at all cost. He is aided by the geeky Don, and the supposedly beautiful Wade. You can pretty much guess the plot of the film from reading the blurb to be honest. They start off as individuals and the more they bond the more they care about each other and the more they learn about themselves. There are some nice plot touches such as paring Tommy with the Korean fighter Dae Han Park, the man who killed his brother in a previous tournament (The pair are actually brothers in real life). There are also some good montage scenes from both the American camp in the Hi-Tech gym and the Koreans who use more traditional methods. The whole film builds up to the eventual tournament where our heroes are the underdogs and must work together to achieve their goal of victory.
I used to own this film on a 4Front VHS, as anybody from the VHS generation will know 4Front’s came in a nice gold colored box and were often lower priced titles. Most VHS collectors at the time would have loads of 4Front videos, I know I had many. I watched this film many times and it helped start my love for Eric Roberts who is easily the most talented of the Roberts family! Here is what my 10 year old self might have said about this film.
Being a martial artist myself I would like to one day compete for my country at events like these. The action in this film has a sense of reality and there is real drama in the story, its not just a build up to the main event. The fact that you become involved in the characters lives outside of their training really makes you want them to win even more.
How wrong was I! This entire film is just a contrived build up to the tournament sequence at the end and how the director along the way tries to manipulate the story to amp up the tension for the portion of the film. But whats wrong with that? Nothing thats what! This film is not supposed to be high concept drama, its supposed to be a martial arts film. Yes there’s bits of story in there and some of the bits are even slightly moving, but anybody who watches this just wants to see some decent fight scenes and thats what you get. The tournament fights are well choreographed and the blows look real, even if the fighting styles take a lot of cinematic liberties. There are even some nice directorial touches from Robert Radler. The Koreans training in the snow in slow motion is actually quiet a beautiful scene and could belong in a film with much higher dramatic aspirations than this one. Radler also manages to make the fight scenes have a tension to them as you really do start to feel yourself unwittingly being drawn in.
Performance wise Eric Roberts is the standout simply because he is Eric Roberts. As always James Earl Jones relies mainly on his unique voice to do all his acting as he seems to just be going through the motions. Christopher Penn is perfectly decent in his role and Phillip Rhee is a terrible actor (Rhee went on to start in the three sequels and actually directed 3&4).
This is a film that should be judged on the type of film it was made as, a martial arts action film. And as a martial arts action film its very good, yes it has massive flaws everywhere else but who cares. I would not recommend anybody to go out and watch this film as a first time watch because frankly you’d more than likely hate it, but on a pure nostalgia level I really enjoyed my revisit.
Anyway peace out suckers! 6.5/10