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Best of the Best

tn_bestofthebestcountdownlogoBEST OF THE BEST is a watchable movie, but not the best of any genre, except possibly Eric Roberts non-sequel karate tournament movies. So I’m not sure about using the word “best” two times in the title. Seems a little presumptuous, unless one is supposed to cancel out the other. They were definitely set on that title, though. It’s spoken out loud in the movie and appears in one of those ’80s inspiration-rock montage songs.

This isn’t a full-on martial arts movie or even on par with a JCVD. This is one of those mainstream-trying-to-come-to-grips-with-something-they-don’t-understand pictures, like a breakdancing movie. While it was written and co-starring the Korean-American martial artist Phillip Rhee, everybody else is a white American (Eric Roberts, Chris Penn), or a respected actor (James Earl Jones). Jones plays the coach and the rest play the five elite martial artists recruited for the U.S. National Karate Team to compete against The Koreans in Tae Kwan Do.

mp_bestofthebestThis was 1989, and I got a hunch it was inspired by THE KARATE KID. I think it’s supposed to be THE KARATE ADULTS. They’re all from different backgrounds and have to stop hating each other and become a family. They bond by getting in bar fights and getting worn out in training and eventually become fight brothers as these under-trained, under-funded underdogs head for their match against Korea.

It’s weird – bearded white guys like Chuck Norris and Stephen Hayes created Americanized versions of martial arts, but they at least paid lip service to Asian mentors, teachers, traditions and philosophies. BEST OF THE BEST acts like karate is just a sport like baseball or football. It shows a karate as separated from its roots as American pizza. The character Virgil (John Dye) meditates, but they make a joke out of it, portraying him as an eccentric, tie-dye-wearing new age goofball who might just do that shit to get a reaction out of people. Travis Brickley (Penn) is a cowboy-hat-wearing redneck karate champion who makes racist comments to the one Japanese character in the movie and can’t remember the word for “that raw fish shit” they eat. Later the two shake hands to show that they’ve been through so much together that all hatchets are automatically buried, but it’s kinda bullshit because Penn hasn’t actually paid any penance at all for being a racist asshole.

This team doesn’t have Mr. Miyagi, but they have James Earl Jones as Couzo, a tough coach who yells at them and pretends not to have any type of human empathy. For example he kicks Alex Grady (Roberts) off the team for briefly leaving to see his son after the poor kid got run over by a car. He’s not Pai Mei cruel though, just basketball-coach-who-seems-like-a-real-asshole-but-he-forces-you-to-dig-down-deep-and-discover-your-inner-champion-and-then-you-realize-you-love-him cruel. He says he’ll make them “eat, sleep and shit competition.” If I were them I’d try to impress him by also pissing competition, but they aren’t specifically commanded to do that. The coach seems like a jerk but of course we eventually realize he has a heart of gold and is only an asshole because he thinks he allowed Tommy’s brother to die when he coached that team and “didn’t have the heart to give them rules and drive them to the edge to the point where they hated my guts!”

Couzo’s training methods are mostly making them run laps, sitting in a class room studying files and using Ivan Drago style high tech equipment to measure the strength of their kicks. That’s the way he likes it. But after some initial rejection he’s convinced the team will need to learn some Asian philosophy in order to have the concentration to win. So he begrudgingly takes on a brilliant assistant trainer to get their minds and spirits in shape:


That’s right, it’s the one and only Toshiro Mifune.




Nah, just kidding. I wish. In actuality it’s motherfuckin blonde Sally Kirkland.

sallykirklandI know, I thought the same thing, but don’t worry, guys. She can help ’cause she was “raised in the far East.” So she hangs around looking serene and calmly recites fortune cookie advice like “Center yourself. Thought and action must be one. There can be no hesitation,” and promises she’s gonna give them “a spirit of peace and clarity.”

At first it seems like Grady is the main character. We see him at home and saying goodbye to his son. Roberts gets most of the melodramatic parts and the crying, but to make him feel better about it he also gets the most macho part, when his arm is dislocated from the shoulder socket and he demands that his people “POP IT!”  back in, then finishes the match basically held together by tape. And no, he doesn’t do a crane kick. He’s not a kid, he’s an adult.

But Tommy Lee (Rhee) also gets some attention as we learn about his brother who was killed in competition by the eyepatch-wearing Korean Dae Han. So Tommy’s here for revenge, but he freaks out when he finds out he really does get to fight Dae Han. Couzo keeps yelling at him for allegedly “holding back.” The movie acts like this is a huge problem for martial artists, this plague of Holding Back their true power. When he finally doesn’t Hold Back he knocks the guy holding the training pads unconscious, and his kick measures off the charts.

I’m gonna not Hold Back myself, I’m gonna go ahead and spoil the whole ending here, so use your own judgment. In the final match Tommy gets into the position of needing 1 point to win the whole competition for the team and having Dae Han in his sights… but Grady and Couzo both see in his eyes that he’s in Not Holding Back mode, and with the benefit of computerized measurements of his kick power they know for a scientific fact that if he kicks this guy he will for sure kill him. So they yell for him not to do it, to not not hold back. And sure enough Tommy manages to hold back and lose the competition. So the lesson is to stop holding back for the beginning of the competition, but start holding back at the end because it’s not worth somebody getting killed.

But BEST OF THE BEST itself cannot be accused of Holding Back in the end, at least in the melodrama department, and that’s why it ultimately won me over. You know me, I’m a sucker for sincere I-need-time-to-change style corniness. So I love that this Dae Han, who we assumed to be evil because he killed Tommy’s brother, not only notices that Tommy just lost the match to spare his life, not only hands him the medal and publicly acknowledges his debt to him, not only sincerely apologizes for killing his brother long ago, but also offers himself up as a new brother. I never saw that coming, and I don’t think I would’ve even if I knew Dae Han was played by Philip Rhee’s actual brother Simon.

So this is some pretty cheesy shit, but if you want to see a long-haired Eric Roberts and the late Chris Penn playing karate experts this is one of your top two choices. I can admit that it’s not as good as THE KARATE KID, but for me its ending has some of the cheesy heart-warming power that one has for you guys.


pedigree: I think this passed for a respectable drama. Jones was an Academy Award nominee for THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, although that was back in 1970. But Kirkland had been nominated best actress for ANNA just the year before. Roberts had been nominated for best supporting actor in RUNAWAY TRAIN three years before. Director Robert Radler… well, he never got to go to the Oscars I don’t think. But he later did parts 3 and 4 of the THE SUBSTITUTE series, and I thought those were surprisingly enjoyable.

programming note: I will be reviewing all the sequels, so please don’t use up all your discussion of those in this thread

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 at 10:03 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Best of the Best”

  1. Great job with the Toshiro Mifune fakeout. :)

  2. Vern, you have to review RUNAWAY TRAIN one of these days. That was fucking good.

    A movie I would recommend over BEST OF THE BEST. By a haircut.

  3. This movie sounds craptacular.
    I like james earl jones though. It’s the voice. I’m a sucker for voices. “Luke, I am your father.” I could listen to him all day. it could be “james earl jones reads the satanic bible” and I’m there.
    I like fortune cookies too, especially when people add “in bed” after every fortune.
    My advice is don’t stand around and listen to nappy white chicks spouting easter philosophy.

  4. vern, since were on “kung fu” movies of late, if you haven’t done “Kung Fu Hustle” you should. It’s like looney tunes does a freaking kung fu movie. You get to see some spectacular fights, but it’s freaking hilarious at the same time.

    oh, but don’t let your kids watch it. after seeing it my four year old threatend to punch my husband in the head until he was dead. Now were constantly saying things like”don’t try to beat anyone up”. Oh,yeah. Lesson learned.

  5. Wanna hear something crazy? The German title of this movie is…(drumroll)…KARATE TIGER IV!
    “Karate Tiger” was the German title for “No Retreat, No Surrender” and of course its sequel became “Karate Tiger 2”.
    Part 3 of the Karate Tiger saga is no other movie than “Kickboxer”
    “Karate Tiger V” is really “The King Of The Kickboxers”, but “Karate Tiger 5” is “American Shaolin”. What? Did you made a mistake, CJ? No, we got seriously two 5th parts of Karate Tiger! Number 5 and Number V!
    But it gets even funnier with “Karate Tiger 6”, because there are two of them either. Only that both are #6 and there is no #VI. One of them is “Kickboxer 3” and the other one is “Best Of The Best 2”, which was during its theatrical run “Best Of The Best 2”, but became on video “Karate Tiger 6”.
    Okay, let’s start over:

    Karate Tiger = No Retreat, No Surrender

    Karate Tiger 2 = No Retreat, No Surrender 2

    Karate Tiger 3 = Kickboxer

    Karate Tiger IV = Best Of The Best

    Karate Tiger 5 = American Shaolin

    Karate Tiger V = The King Of The Kickboxers

    Karate Tiger 6 = Kickboxer 3

    Karate Tiger 6 (b) = Best Of The Best 2, but only on Video

    Karate Tiger VII = To Be The Best

    Karate Tiger 8 = Fists Of Iron

    Karate Tiger 9 = Superfights

    I got no idea if there are more, but to be honest, at this point I don’t care anymore.

  6. This one was certainly into the realms of “ok” and even somewhat entertaining at times. As somebody who hates the trend sports movies have of making the “champions” that the plucky underdogs have to compete against a bunch of rich self-satisfied assholes, the scene at the end with Dee Han really worked for me. In fact, I’d pretty much agree with Vern on the whole of this.

    By the same token though, Vern, on a person level I’m looking forward to you ripping “Best of the best 3” apart. On a purely humanitarian level though, I’d say: don’t use up two precious hours of your life on it!

    The first sequel was ok, although less good and more cliche’d than “Best of the Best”; but the second one introduced a lot of incredibly inept neo-Nazis. It was really, really, really bad. I’m not even talking the “fun” kind of bad, where you can laugh at how cheesy and over-the-top the movie is. I’m talking about a movie that takes itself bizarrely seriously yet shames everybody involved. It’s painful to watch. I’m not a “A Time to Kill” hater – I liked it more than Vern did, I think – but I’d be surprised if Vern disagreed with my opinion that “BoTB3” makes it look like a masterpiece by comparison.

    Question to the crowd: the thing that “Best of the best 3”, “A time to kill” and several other movies I can think of have in common is that they portray white supremacists as backwards hicks / rednecks. The Ku Klux Klan are pretty much universally regarded as comic relief – it’s practically a rule that if you include a KKK rally in your film, the Grand Kleagle has to be set on fire.

    (As evidence I present to you: “Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanomo Bay”, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, and the horrific “Bad Boys 2”. What do those three films have in common? If you’re going to say “Martin Lawrence gets shot in the ass” then sorry, good try, but you’re wrong. It’s actually Kleagle flambe.)

    Come to think of it, I can’t think of any film I’ve seen where a white supremacist uses any piece of technology more advanced than a mobile phone. And this is in a day and age where it’s practically guaranteed that the hero will have to search for something on the Internet (thanks, Google / Microsoft sponsorship!) Hell, I can’t even think of a film where a white supremacist even reads a book, other than “Mein Kampf” or the bible.

    Now while I’d love this to be a realistic portrayal of modern-day racists, you know and I know that that ain’t so. It comes across as more a case similar to how the Germans mock neo-Nazis, because to not do so would be to admit that they’re a serious problem; which, when that problem has so much to do with how they’re perceived, would just exacerbate it. So instead they make them look like buffoons. The unfortunate reality is that there are some very smart people out there with a great deal of money, resources and connections, who are wholeheartedly dedicated to the exile or extermination of the Jews, the blacks, “westerners”, Israelis, etc.

    Now occasionally you get “serious” films about terrorism, and not only from Hollywood. And of course the “Nazi film” is practically a genre staple from the early 1940s onwards. But white supremacists, even though there are some very well-organized groups out there, are almost always portrayed as buffoons, hicks or rednecks. So here’s a question: can somebody name for me a film with a non-stereotypical view of a white supremacist organization? “American History X” is probably the best example I can come up with, and it’s not a great one.

  7. Wow, sorry for wall-of-text. Didn’t realise that would be as long as it was.

    Here’s the main point repeated:

    “Now occasionally you get “serious” films about terrorism, and not only from Hollywood. And of course the “Nazi film” is practically a genre staple from the early 1940s onwards. But white supremacists, even though there are some very well-organized groups out there, are almost always portrayed as buffoons, hicks or rednecks. So here’s a question: can somebody name for me a film with a non-stereotypical view of a white supremacist organization? “American History X” is probably the best example I can come up with, and it’s not a great one.”

  8. Travis Brickley!?! Oh for christ’s sake….

    Paul: Let’s see. AMERICAN HISTORY X, that’s a pretty good example. MALONE (reviewed elsewhere by Vern) has fairly sophisticated white power guys.

    There’s a film with James Woods and James Spader as lawyers, what was the name–that might qualify.

    The Left Behind movies–at least, they’re based on books co-written by a white supremacist.

    and WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE whenever it deals with the Bush Administration.

  9. Mac : good shout on Kung Fu Hustle. It’s one of my faves – a riot of imagination that takes the best from several genres, plays with and builds on them to create something I believe is truly original and unpredictable.

  10. I dunno, the absolutely lousy John Frankenheimer actioneer DEAD BANG with Don Johnson had some above-average capable white power villainy. I guess.

  11. @ Paul

    Good movies with white supremacists who are not comic relief, might include ROMBER STOMPER and THE BELIEVER.

  12. Nothing to say about this movie (but it was a good review, and nice fakeout with Mifune), but on the greater EXPENDABLES topic, I picked up UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION yesterday and it was as good as you said, Vern. I was pleased to see they were promoting a lot of action movies in my supermarket by putting an EXPENDABLES advert around the films starring the cast (although also for ones not, including Seagal movies). I also found this fantasy casting for a female Expendables:
    A couple I would replace or switch around, but it’s mostly a cool looking line-up to me. Statham’s role should be played by Lena Headey though, then we’d have two Sarah Conners in the movie…

  13. mac: isn’t “like looney tunes meets Kung Fu” on the DVD cover? And it is a great movie, I believe Vern has mentioned it before.

    Paul: isn’t there a recent movie where the buiness man villian turns out to be a white suprimicist? It’s on the tip of my tongue but I can’t recall.

    Vern: I’m quite curious to see what Terry Crews flick you choose. And I forbid you to choose White Chicks.

  14. Stu – I like their list, but it just shows you how phony the casting is for tough ladies in movies. They definitely should have Zoe Bell on there somewhere and Gina Carano or one of the other MMAers in the Randy Couture spot. And a wrestler for Stone Cold Steve Austin. Chyna, maybe?

    I found a couple of Gina Carano’s fights on DVD and I’m even more excited for that Soderbergh movie now that I’ve seen how she fights. She could definitely beat down everybody on that list, then smile and hug them afterwards.

  15. Verbal Hooligan

    July 28th, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Vern- I can’t wait for your review of BEST OF THE BEST 2: PORT OF CALL LAS VEGAS as I think it’s even MORE stunningly cheesy/craptacular than the original. Rolf Mueller is the bad guy.

    And no, I will never let this joke die.

  16. Paul –

    “The Chamber” has some pretty freaky, cunning KKK guys. On TV, “Sons of Anarchy” features very well organized white supremacists as well.

    As far as “The Best of the Best” goes, never been a big Eric Roberts fan. Wasn’t he in that movie about the Playboy model who was murdered by her boyfriend? I saw that when I was a little kid and it really freaked me out. That and “The Specialist” with Stallone. What a piece of shit that was.

  17. Oh shit I just realized Vern could’ve reviewed the specialist and killed two birds with one stone as far as the Expendables countdown goes. Stallone and Roberts, with Sharon Stone and James Woods as bonus prizes.

  18. Since she’s left wrestling, Chyna’s gotten a bit of scary plastic surgery and hasn’t done much of any note. I think the modern day equivalent of her would have to be Awesome Kong, who fit the bodyguard/enforcer role Stone Cold seems to be
    I did think of Zoe Bell, but not who she’d be the equivalent of, though I suppose her non-american working classness would make her a good fit for Statham’s role, even if she’s not british.

  19. ^who’d fit

  20. Anthony, I pulled out the case, it’s one the back. “Think Kill Bill meets Looney tunes”.
    Definately Looney Tunes, not so much Kill Bill. I’m going to watch it now!

  21. Best of the Best 2 does have Ralph Moeller playing a bad guy named “Brakus”.

    Shame the rest of the movie fails to be worthy of a villain that awesome…

  22. paul: how about a little movie called BIRTH OF A NATION?

  23. Was anyone else distracted by the gold ankle bracelet just barely visible on Sally Kirkland in that photo?

    Maybe that was part of her training regimen. “You must learn not to focus on the teasing gold ankle bracelet in my lap while I’m teaching you to meditate for inner peace.” “Crap, how did she know?! Her eyes were closed!” “Yeah, she’s good!”

  24. Interesting how that list didn’t mention Uma Thurman.

  25. Or Geena Davis!?!

    After “Long Kiss Goodnight” and the swashbuckling smash-hit “Cutthroat Island” she became a bonafide action superstar-ess.

  26. Paul: Miami Vice had a group of white supremacists who were skilled in advanced weaponry, cover tactics, counter-surveillance, and communications technology. Course, they did keep their hostage in a trailer park with three of the reddest necks ever on film.

  27. I remember the time I went to the Great American Beer Festival. I pissed competition all night long.

  28. Hmmmm thanks for a lot of suggestions for films I haven’t seen. I’ll look them up. “Miami Vice” was already on my to-watch list, but that’s more recent than most of them probably are anyway.

  29. I remember watching Best of the Best at my grandparents’ house when I was, like, 9. Even back then, I thought it was cheesy as hell, but that ending is truly awesome. The emotions it evokes have no right being there after the silly bar brawl and the blonde trainer and Ahmad Rashad and all those montages.

    Also, I wish we could see the exact instant when Dae Han’s eye patch comes off when his brother-to-be kicks him.

    Sometimes when I want to high-5 someone who’s not there, I get on Netflix and just fast forward to the last 5 minutes of this movie.

  30. Finally saw it on Netflix Instant (it and its sequel are going away in a few days) – and holy shit. The first 90% of this movie is pretty good, definitely cheesy, but never boring even though it’s light on fighting and heavy on training montages. But I kid you not when I say the ending actually rivals Tin Cup in terms of “clever way to end a sports movie”.

    And also, I like that Sally Kirkland is a pretty disposable character. She’s nobody’s love interest, and in fact the movie wouldn’t be that different if they left her out of it. She’s mysterious and intimidating like Jodie Foster in Inside Man, and the last character you’d expect to show up in a movie like this.

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