Best of the Best (1989)

PLOT: The five members of the U.S. karate team must work together in order to compete against their highly skilled counterparts from Korea. Will the stress of intense training combined with their personal demons threaten their chances, especially if they’re not allowed to drink, have sex, or smoke the devil’s lettuce during training?

Director: Robert Radler
Writer: Paul Levine
Cast: Phillip Rhee, Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Chris Penn, David Agresta, Simon Rhee, James Lew, Ken Nagayama, John Ryan, John Dye, Tom Everett, Hee Il Cho, John P. Ryan


The Rhee brothers, Simon and Phillip, are established quantities in the world of action cinema. The elder sibling, Simon, has done stunt work on everything from The Dark Knight Rises and Anchorman 2 to the 2011 Muppets reboot. While fight and stunt choreography is clearly his bread and butter, his acting appearances are frequent but mostly minor, with credits such as “Asian villain #1” and “Bruno’s henchman” in his filmography. Younger brother, Phillip, has had a much less prolific career in front of the camera, but four of his gigs were starring roles in the film franchise he co-produced starting in 1989, Best of the Best. He has since become more heavily involved with the business side of media production. The moral of the story: for the best of the best possible outcomes in the entertainment business, enroll yourself or your children in taekwondo classes around the age of four.

When it comes to competitive martial arts team competitions, no one is better than the Korean team. Practicing for 12 months out of the year -- even under the harshest conditions (snow jogging!) -- has resulted in countless international championships and Olympic medals. The team is also led by the reigning world's champion, the fierce Dae Han (Simon Rhee). With only three months to train the American team before a major competition, Frank Couzo (Jones) is facing an uphill battle. The team’s financial benefactor, Jennings (Ryan) has mandated that Couzo make room for an assistant coach specializing in meditation and mental skills, named Catherine Wade (Kirkland). With the merry band of fighters Couzo has chosen for the squad, he’ll need all the help he can get to make them laser focused.

The team is five men strong. Alex Grady (Roberts) is a widowed single parent and auto factory worker from Portland, Oregon with a bum shoulder. Travis Brickley (Penn) is a hotheaded and overtly racist Floridian cowboy from Miami. The team’s resident oddball is Virgil Keller (Dye), an aspiring Buddhist from Rhode Island. Hailing from the mean streets of Detroit is proud and totally generic Italian guy, Sonny Grasso (Agresta). Rounding out the team is the talented, Tommy Lee (Rhee), a taekwondo instructor who teaches kids in California and harbors a past trauma that could harm his ability to fight at a high level. To keep the team on task, Couzo’s two rules are simple: don’t be late, and function as a team. Other than racist infighting, car accidents, and a macho inability to deal with one’s emotions, what could possibly go wrong?

The action in the film is sparse but well executed. There’s a bar fight in the early going after the team has been assembled that serves to not only bond the new teammates, but also demonstrate how big of a prick Travis can be (his gyrating and groping of a woman starts shit with her jealous boyfriend and his crew of drunks). This melee (quite fun!) features broken tables, wrecked doors, a smashed pinball machine, and a shattered glass pane before all is said and done. Up until the actual competition, though, there’s a dearth of choreographed fight scenes, as the story focuses instead on preparation and training montages. Thankfully, the final showdown between the teams doesn’t disappoint, as each fight balances good choreography with relevant character drama. The filmmakers were wise to save the best martial artists in its cast for the most meaningful fight, when Tommy Lee takes on Dae Han in the final match with the highest stakes. The brothers Rhee tear the house down, showing off the skills that made them household names in the 1980s and 90s, assuming those households were comprised of action movie fanatics.

Maybe this is the sting of untimely 2016 celebrity deaths talking, but it’s rather odd to watch the team of young American fighters in a 1989 movie with the knowledge that two of the five actors are no longer with us. Stranger yet, both John Dye and Chris Penn passed away from non-specific heart ailments in their 40s. While both actors enjoyed roles in other action films, this movie afforded them an opportunity to demonstrate their martial arts skills for the camera for the first time (unless you count Penn’s fight scene in Footloose). Penn, as some readers might know, was also a student and close friend of Don “The Dragon” Wilson, but also trained in the early 1980s under Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. At least for a time, martial arts was a very legitimate facet of his life.

The way the film handles the cultural representation of the Korean team is rather strange, yet almost typically 80s in its fumbling approach. The most glaring trait is that the non-English lines of dialogue among its team -- primarily delivered by the team’s coach, played by TKD legend, Hee Il Cho -- aren’t given the benefit of subtitles. The subtext that results is that these people aren’t meant to be understood, but rather only identified as foreign through their use of a non-English language. The team is shown practicing outdoors and/or in temple courtyards, bereft of the sleek and high-tech settings one might typically associate with South Korea today (a country often cited as the most innovative in the world). The team is said to practice 12 months out of the year and according to competition commentator Ahmad Rashad, taekwondo is basically the national pastime, akin to American baseball. (Assuming you ignore the data showing that football and baseball are the most popular sports there.)

Unlike a lot of films from this era, the main villain is not some cartoonish brute with a bad haircut or some wealthy, nefarious puppetmaster attempting to destroy everything around him. Sure, the Korean opposition is appropriately fearsome but far from evil. Instead, the tension for the heroes is almost entirely internal. Can Travis regulate his hot-headed bullying long enough to focus on the objective at hand? Will the distractions of Alex’s family obligations undermine his goals and get him booted from the team? Can Tommy overcome the torment of his past and find the killer instinct within himself that he’ll need to win? As someone who is deeply neurotic with a lot of unresolved emotions and a trail of failed relationships, this really appealed to me.


Critics were not kind to the film upon its release -- and neither were audiences -- but Best of the Best found a loyal fan base through home video and cable TV. It’s that rare breed of chopsocky film that complements its martial artists with seasoned performers and loads of dramatic heft to help carry the story. Admittedly, it can be formulaic at times and it may rely on training montages too often. Some action fans may be disappointed with the low amount of creative fight scenes. To those people I say: quit whining...and thanks for reading. At its core, it’s a well-acted and satisfying underdog story that should appeal to pure martial arts fans.


On DVD through Amazon, Netflix, and eBay. Streaming on Crackle.

5 / 7

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