Director: Robert Radler
Writer: Paul Levine
Producer: Phillip Rhee, Peter Strauss
Cast: James Earl Jones, Eric Roberts, Phillip Rhee, Chris Penn, John Dye, David Agresta, Tom Everett, Sally Kirkland, Hee Il Cho, Simon Rhee, James Lew, Ken Nagayama, Ho Sik Pak, Edan Gross, Louise Fletcher
Running Time: 97 min.
I put off watching “Best of the Best” for years – to the point where most people’s reaction became “I can’t believe you haven’t seen that movie!” Even as a huge fan of martial arts movies, I avoided the film since I figured it was more of an inspirational sports drama a la “Chariots of Fire” than a true kung fu flick. This is one occasion where I’m happy to be wrong; “Best of the Best” is a legitimate 80’s brand of action movie and a must see for fight fans. It ranks alongside Jean Claude Van Damme’s early work such as “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer,” and is, in fact, superior to those films in many ways since “Best of the Best” has a crucial ingredient missing from similar macho movies: heart.
In the film, we get to know a group of likable guys, including Eric Roberts (“The Expendables“) and Phillip Ree, who are out to prove America’s dominance in the Tae Kwon Do field. Their competition is a group of steely-eyed South Koreans who seem to break concrete blocks in their sleep. Even better, their coach is none other than Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones. The casting in this film is spot-on, except for Sally Kirkland as the yoga instructor in 80’s shoulder pads, and the actors go a long way in making “Best of the Best” as entertaining as it is. Eric Roberts is sympathetic as a blue collar dad with a mane of hair that would make Mel Gibson circa “Lethal Weapon” jealous. Some people have singled out Roberts’ over-acting during the climax of this film but, hey, you dislocate your shoulder in middle of a breakneck competition and tell me you aren’t crying like a pregnant woman.
Phillip Ree delivers an understated performance that often requires him to look intense or aimlessly ride his motorcycle for days. However, the speed and ferocity with which Ree moves while performing Tae Kwon Do proves that he’s the real deal. In truth, Ree had been competing in martial arts since he was a teenager and, after the runaway success of “Best of the Best,” he was even in consideration for the role of Bruce Lee in “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”
David Agresta is on board as Sonny, the martial arts expert from Detroit. This leads to a lot of Detroit jokes sprinkled in the script, which were quite funny to me since I’m from the area. Chris Penn’s rotund cowboy provides questionable comic relief and you gotta wonder how in the hell his character is supposed to be able to keep up with the other guys while they’re running full bore across the beach and doing all those sit-ups. Hollywood magic, I guess. Regardless, it’s a shame that Chris Penn died so young in life as he was always a reliable character actor.
“Best of the Best” is not wall-to-wall action, although it does feature one of the best bar brawls of all time, up there with Steven Seagal knocking out teeth in “Out For Justice” and Chuck Norris taking on a biker gang in “Silent Rage.” But mostly this film is about character interaction and the philosophy underpinning martial arts. “Best of the Best” reveals how sometimes it displays more strength to withhold a blow than it does to dominate your opponent. Eric Roberts’ character arc resonates because he’s just a regular guy who’s trying to reconnect with the one thing that he’s good at in life. Meanwhile, Phillip Ree must quell his inner rage and find peace with his brother’s death. Both characters reach the end of their journeys in the film’s powerful conclusion, which features a surprising display of humility and brotherhood from the least likely of sources.
Lest you forget that this is an 80’s movie, “Best of the Best” is a bit rough around the edges with big hair and cheesy 80’s power ballads cued at the most opportune of moments. But, hey, that’s part of the charm. This film has all the spinning kicks of a Van Damme or Jeff Speakman flick but it goes the extra mile by giving the audience a reason to care about the characters. And that’s why “Best of the Best” is a certifiable classic of its genre. To all you fans of the film, I have only one thing to say: “Pop it, Tommy! Pop it!”
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8/10