Director: Joseph Merhi
Writer: Michael January
Cast: Michael Worth, Phillip Troy Lingers, Martin Kove, Alex Card, Brittney Powell, Steven Vincent Leigh, Vince Murdocco, Ron Yuan
After classics like Five Fingers of Death, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Enter the Dragon, and Bloodsport, the drop-off to the next tier of tournament-themed martial arts movies is stark. With the incredible oversaturation of this subgenre that film fans observed during the late 1980s and early 90s, how much differentiation can there really be? Shootfighter added weapons and gore to the fights. Heatseeker added cyborgs and American Apparel leggings. For a fresh angle, Joseph Merhi’s 1993 film To Be the Best adds a round-robin point system, fight-rigging, and baggy American flag warm-up pants and I have to admit: that just might be a winning formula.
Legendary b-movie bad-ass Martin Kove plays Rick Kulhane, the alcoholic patriarch of a family of kickboxing has-beens. After taking a bribe to take a dive during a fight, his career was derailed by a combination of bad decisions and alcohol. If he’d only stuck to beer crafted by Sam Adams --in their words, “Always a Good Decision” -- he could have mitigated the ill effects of his behavior. For the record, that previous sentence was not paid for by Sam Adams, and I’m a little pissed about it, because they put out a fine product. Except Cherry Wheat, which sucks mightily.
Perhaps worse, Papa Kulhane’s past mistakes have taken root in his kickboxing sons, Eric (Worth) and Sam (Lingers). While Eric is still young and shows promise, Sam has gone down the same dark paths of greed and addiction as his father, and has been reduced to street fighting for cash. When Rick shows up at their gym to recruit five willing and qualified American fighters for a yearly international kickboxing tournament in Las Vegas, they’re energized by the possibilities. For all three men, it represents an opportunity to return glory to the Kulhane name. A win for the U.S. would spell redemption for Rick’s past misdeeds. A win for Sam would mean a validation of his long journey to defeat addiction and return to elite status in his sport. For Eric, the championship would provide financial security for his future with Cheryl (Powell), the woman he hopes to make his wife. For U.S. teammate Duke (Murdocco), the trip to Las Vegas represents an opportunity to get shitfaced and play Blackjack until he passes out.
Victory will be far from easy. The Thai team has won the event for the last five years and is comprised of one guy with brown hair who clearly isn’t Asian, and four guys with Chinese names, two of whom have vaguely Californian accents. Played by Steven Vincent Leigh, Hong Do (pronounced “dough”) is the team’s charismatic leader who has found that “everywhere I go, people love Hong Do.” Uh, YEAH. Who wouldn’t love a kickboxing rhymesmith? The Thais’ dominance doesn’t just extend to the ring though. During a scene that sees enough Zubaz and acid wash jeans to choke a Valley girl, the Thai and U.S. teams find themselves bowling next to each other at the local lanes and things quickly turn violent. Sadly, this is only the second best bowling-alley-conflict-that-directly-leads-to-an-arm-injury scene of the 1990s.
As if the temptations of booze, drugs, and women weren’t enough, a wealthy businessman who purports to be a friend of Cheryl’s father is in town to monitor the tournament. Played by Alex Cord, the sleazy Jack Rodgers never met a Bolo tie he didn’t like or a kickboxer he didn’t attempt to bribe. He targets the youngest Kulhane as a vulnerable pawn who he can buy off in order to manipulate the tournament results and rake in millions in gambling winnings. Will Eric cave to the same pressures that doomed his father and older brother? Can he overcome girlfriend troubles, death threats, and terrible fashion sense to win the championship? Furthermore, will Hong Do and the Thais continue their streak of dominance, or crumble like the Peach Cobbler served daily at the Wynn Brunch Buffet?
This was pretty decent and the overall spread of action in the film offers a little something for everyone. There’s an opening helicopter crash to satisfy a thirst for splosiony stunts, we get our requisite training montage complete with a freeze-frame outro, and a boat load of tournament fighting. Since it comprises the largest part of the action quotient, it’s probably the most deserving of extended critique.
If you’ve read these posts for a while, I’ve not made secret my distaste for fights in spaces like rings or cages. Beyond the obvious spacial limitations, they can constrict interaction with the surrounding environment that can really choke the creativity of the fight choreography. With the large-scale tournament device, the filmmakers are married to showing a lot of fights using the same space over and over, and it’s hard to get any one to stick out from the crowd. That said, it was pretty tolerable here. The themed Zubaz pants for each team was a nice visual touch and I appreciated that some fighters isolated and attack specific appendages to weaken their opponents. It’s a psychological trope common to pro wrestling, and speaking of pro wrestling, some of these fights have a lot of pro wrestling moves. Arm bars, backbreakers, and even a flying clothesline from the second rope pepper the otherwise punchy and kicky proceedings. While the moves don’t really have any logic or context in a legitimate kickboxing tournament, they’re apparently legal. Almost everything is legal in Las Vegas.
While the film’s central conflict surrounds Eric Kulhane and his rise-or-fall dilemma, this is an ensemble piece and everyone gets their fair share of screen time. Michael Worth was pretty decent as the lead, which is to say neither his fighting nor his acting sucked badly enough to detract from the viewing experience. Phillip Troy Lingers was equally up for the task as Sam; again, solid dramatically, but otherwise nothing noteworthy. The real glue was Martin Kove, who guzzled down scotch-and-sodas with ease and rocked a swank Los Angeles Raiders leather jacket for the majority of the film. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do any fighting but still commands the screen better than about 80% of the cast and conveys Rick Kulhane’s human flaws believably while still playing the role of the good guy mentor.
To Be the Best is a film replete with villains -- the dominant and cocky Thai team and the Vegas mobsters among them -- but the main villain is the fight-rigging Jack Rodgers. This character was dangerously close to villainfiller territory but this perception was upended by the terrific performance of Alex Card. Scheming middle-aged businessmen are by no means an original archetype in these films, but Card turned Jack Rodgers into Halliburton executive material: a rich, sleazy, and batshit-crazy asshole. From the soft-spoken manner with which he initially approaches Cheryl, to his turn as a violent and double-crossing hothead, Card makes you believe both extremes and everything in between. He doesn’t really fight per se, but like James Hong in Talons of the Eagle, his performance is so good that he doesn’t have to.
To Be the Best features a few interesting characters, some good performances, amazing jackets, and moderately entertaining in-ring fights. This one came during the latter portion of Joseph Merhi’s career and directorially, he was in the groove. Tune in for the familiar faces and the unbridled onslaught of American flag themed warm-up pants. Though not without flaws, To Be the Best is an entertaining watch for the kickboxing-inclined.
Amazon, Netflix, EBay.
4.5 / 7