In 1989, the movie Best of the Best had a somewhat abbreviated run in theaters. Only grossing a mere $1.7 million, the movie was a major hit on home video and cable. That’s why, three years later, a sequel, Best of the Best 2, hit theaters… for a while. While the first film has maintained a certain cult status, the sequel, and the two more that followed, have been largely forgotten – until now on this edition of The Best Movie You Never Saw.
Best of the Best 2 came from the same creative team behind the original, including director Robert Radler and producer/ star Phillip Rhee. Intriguingly, it was co-written by a TV actor of the time named John Allen Nelson, who starred on Baywatch for a few seasons, played Paul The Wine Guy on Friends, and has shown up as a guest actor on most of the biggest shows on TV. In the nineties, he had a nice sideline as a writer of B-action movies. But I digress.
Best of the Best 2 picks up where the first film left off, with the US Karate Team being crowned the victors of their international competition by their rivals, the Koreans, who admire their courage and brotherhood in the ring. The three leads from the last film, Eric Roberts’ Alex Grady, Phillip Rhee’s Tommy Lee, and Chris Penn’s Travis Brickley, have gone into business together, operating a Karate School in Las Vegas, where Alex’s son, Walter, is a prized student. Being a massive fan of the first film, there’s something oddly touching about the three guys joining together to raise Alex’s son, especially given that Travis was a virulent racist originally, who has been wholly redeemed by the second film and is now a peach of a guy. But, alas, Chris Penn is still not a convincing martial artist, something the movie plays into when Travis gets in over his head competing in underground cage matches at a fight club called the Coliseum, which is lorded over by a brutal killer named Brakus, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old training partner, Ralf Moeller, who would later be cast – to great effect — in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Travis is killed while poor Walter watches, sending Tommy and Alex on the warpath.
So here’s the thing – Best of the Best 2 is quite different from the first movie. That one was a Karate Kid/Rocky-style sports movie, while this is much more of a martial arts-driven action film in the vein of Kickboxer or Bloodsport. It shouldn’t really work, but it does, mainly due to the terrific acting from leads Eric Roberts and Phillip Rhee. Both men are often sneered at as DTV guys, but they brought a lot of heart to the Best of the Best movies, making them a cut above the average action fare you might have found at a video store in the nineties.
Eric Roberts, in particular, is one of the most sensitive action heroes of all time, with him breaking into tears at the drop of a hat. He does so repeatedly in both movies, but it’s oddly touching. As a former martial arts student, I remember finding it immensely affecting in the early sequences when Walter fails his test for his next belt but takes it gracefully, leading to a teary-eyed speech by his dad about how he showed him what a winner really is. It’s cheesy but lovely and a good message in tune with the first film.
But, again, the film is much more of an action film, with Tommy and Alex trying to avenge their friend’s death at the hands of Brakus and his handler, a Vegas smoothie played by none other than Wayne Newton. The two, with Walter, the only witness, in tow, have to high tail it to the desert to stay with Tommy’s Native American grandmother, with his uncle, played by Predator star Sonny Landham, conveniently revealed as a one-time fighter who managed to defeat the un-beatable Brakus back in the day, leading to him training Alex and Tommy to fight him.
One notable thing is how Eric Roberts, despite being the bigger star, takes the backseat here in action to the more trained Phillip Rhee, who’s abducted by Brakus’s men and forced into a series of brutal fights at the Coliseum, while Alex looks for him. Roberts gets some gunplay, which seems more of his comfort zone than the Karate in the first film, but the big fights all go to Rhee, who’s an excellent fighter but also has a vulnerability many of his contemporaries didn’t have. The battle between him and Brakus almost has a tragic vibe to it, as Tommy doesn’t want to kill, but fate makes him a killer. The sequel, Best of the Best 3, is all about Tommy leaving his friends behind and taking a trip across America to come to terms with the fact that he had to kill. However, in a weird twist, he ends up fighting the KKK in a small town in addition to the franchise that seems to have more modeled on First Blood than the other films.
Best of the Best 2 is different from the first film. Still, it has lots of moments that pay off for fans, such as Tommy’s opponent from the first film, Dae Han (played by Rhee’s real-life brother Simon), helping Alex save Tommy, as he swore a blood oath at the end of the first film to replace the brother he initially killed in the ring. It’s nice to see him live up to the oath so that the brotherhood aspect of the first film wasn’t just ditched. Roberts also gets a good love interest in Meg Foster as a TV reporter who, initially, seems to turn on him, only to go to bat for him in the end.
Surprisingly, Best of the Best 2 did a lot better than the first film theatrically, making about five times as much at the box office. However, considering how low the gross was on the first film, it only amounted to about $6 million. But, again, it was a significant hit on video, spawning two more direct-to-video sequels, although sadly, they didn’t have all that much in common with the first two movies.
Taken together, the two Best of the Best movies are solid, sporting a couple of great performances from Roberts and Rhee and some nifty fights. If you haven’t checked them out but enjoy fight movies from that era or a show like Cobra Kai, which feels more like the Best of the Best movies than The Karate Kid, I recommend it.