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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Best of the Best

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at BEST OF THE BEST!

THE STORY: A team of American martial artists, including single father Alex Grady (Eric Roberts), are chosen to represent the United States in an international tournament pitting them against Team Korea. Complicating things is the fact that the team’s most skilled fighter, Tommy (Philip Rhee) secretly plans to take his revenge against Team Korea leader Dae Han (Simon Rhee) who, years earlier, killed his brother in a match.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Eric Roberts, Philip Rhee, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland & Chris Penn. Directed by Robert Radler.

THE HISTORY: In the late eighties, martial arts was firmly a part of the pop culture thanks to the legend of Bruce Lee, THE KARATE KID, and a never-ending slew of Ninja movies from Cannon. Schools opened up in virtually every mall all over North America (such as the one I went to as a child in the mid-nineties). Guys like Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, and (especially) Jean-Claude Van Damme were household names and the martial arts tournament movie was a popular video store genre, with classics of the genre including KICKBOXER, BLOODSPORT, BLOODFIST and many, many more.

"That was maybe the most fun physically I’ve ever had making movies. It was like boys’ camp. I got to go work out the body at the gym every morning, then you’d go do the goju and get ready for the moves of the day, and then you’d go to the set and shoot a karate movie. It ended up being a wonderful movie about triumph. And I’m very proud of that first film, Best Of The Best. It’s a really good movie." – Eric Roberts- Random Roles Interview- Av Club

Unlike many of these films (except the Van Damme movies), BEST OF THE BEST got a major theatrical release in North America, and with its PG-13 rating, it’s clear the makers were looking for more mainstream success, along the lines of the KARATE KID. For whatever reason, BEST OF THE BEST tanked theatrically, only grossing $1.7 million, although it’s home video/cable success was so massive we got a theatrically released sequel in 1992, and then two direct-to-video sequels (very loosely related to the first two) in the mid-nineties.

WHY IT'S GREAT: First, let me acknowledge the fact that to many of you reading this, BEST OF THE BEST is not an obscure movie. It’s a cult favorite for action fans thanks to its constant cable play in the nineties (thank you TBS!) and it was successful enough to spawn a (modest) franchise. Yet, I also firmly believe just as many readers out there have never even heard of this late eighties flick, which is a cut about most martial arts movies of the era.

"That film came from the heart. It’s based on my story from when I competed in 1980 against the Korean team." - Philip Rhee- Action Elite Interview

For one thing, BEST OF THE BEST is more of a drama in the vein of ROCKY or THE KARATE KID than an all-out action flick. Just as much, if not more, time is given to the personal lives of the athletes, with Eric Roberts the heart and soul of the film as injured fighter Alex Grady, who had to put his dreams on hold to raise his son as a single dad. One of the best subplots involves his son being injured in an accident and his choice to quit the team in order to be there for his kid, and you have to appreciate that the makers opted to hire a legitimate actor rather than a fighter to play the part. In his case it pays off as he was in such good shape he could reasonably approximate the on-screen action and seem like a credible fighter. That said, this decision backfires a bit when it comes to Chris Penn, who never convinces as literally one of the best martial artists in the country, although he’s fun in the part so I guess that’s ok.

What may surprise people though is the fact that Eric Roberts, despite his top-billing, isn’t actually the star. Rather, Philip Rhee, who plays Tommy, is the main character. He gets the most brutal scrap as well as the big arc, but the way it plays out is totally refreshing as opposed to most eighties action flicks. I also appreciate the distinctly non-xenophobic vibe. While yes, for much of the film Team Korea is presented as this feared enemy, when it comes down to the tournament itself they prove to be not all that different from our American heroes, and the ending is one of the best “guy cry” moments ever (along with that classic tear-jerker, BRIAN’S SONG).

While a bit cheesy in the distinct eighties way (lots of scenes of Rhee riding his motorcycle with a power ballad in the background) it’s still a major cut above for the genre. Roberts was at his peak in this era, coming off of three Golden Globe nominations (KING OF THE GYPSIES, STAR 80 & RUNAWAY TRAIN) and an Oscar nod (nominated for RUNAWAY TRAIN, although he should have been nominated and won for STAR 80), and puts his all into the part. While he’s maybe a bit over the top in his emoting (has any action star ever cried onscreen as much as he does here?), I love him in the part, and Rhee should have gotten a lot more roles, too. And, while some may scoff at the idea of James Earl Jones as a martial arts coach he was THE MAN as far as authority figures went in this era, and his presence on the VHS cover probably helped this one infiltrate the pop culture to the degree it did.

BEST SCENE: The bit where Eric Roberts dislocates his shoulder is a classic of the martial arts genre. Say “pop it Tommy” to any legit action fan of a certain age and they’ll 100% know what you’re referring to.

SEE IT: BEST OF THE BEST can be a little tricky to find, but it’s out there on DVD/Blu-ray, although it seems not to be available digitally, at least not in Canada.

PARTING SHOT: BEST OF THE BEST is a prime serving of eighties cheese with the added benefit that, in addition to hitting all the familiar beats of the genre that you’d expect, has a heart beneath its brawny exterior. I found this quite inspiring as a kid and it's well worth a watch or revisit.

Source: JoBlo.com

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