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  Best of the Best Tae Kwon Don't
Year: 1989
Director: Robert Radler
Stars: Eric Roberts, Phillip Rhee, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Chris Penn, John Dye, David Agresta, Tom Everett, Louise Fletcher, John P. Ryan, Edan Gross, Simon Rhee, Master Hee Il Cho, James Lew, Ken Nagayama, Kane Hodder
Genre: Drama, Martial ArtsBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 2 votes)
Review: Widower Alex Grady (Eric Roberts) works on a car production line, but lives for two things: his five-year-old son and his martial arts tournaments. He may have been seriously injured in the past during one of his fights, resulting in him having his shoulder replaced, but he is still highly skilled which is the reason he is invited to audition for the world championships, representing the United States. He joins a hundred others in hoping to be picked for the final five, including Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee), who has his own reasons for wanting to fight the Korean team the Americans are due to do combat with... something to do with the death of his brother fifteen years ago.

Here's one of those action movies which has a cult of fans who take it very seriously indeed while everyone else sees it as laughably contrived and hopelessly shallow in its efforts to stir the emotions. Of course, among that latter group is a cult who enjoy films like these because of the unintentional comedy they provide, and Best of the Best does pretty well in that department thanks to a largely overqualified cast doing their best to live up to the material they are given. Or live down, perhaps. This was the brainchild of Rhee who acted as producer, star, co-writer and probably made everyone a cup of tea at some point as well.

He's a nice guy like that. But somehow he managed to recruit Oscar-nominated stars of the quality of James Earl Jones, Louise Fletcher and Sally Kirkland; now, seeing the type of thing that litters their careers, perhaps Best of the Best is a little higher profile than most, but they're offered roles of such constriction that they either resort to hamming it up - Jones speaks over half his lines at the top of his voice - or falling back on aching sincerity. Kirkland, for example, plays a spiritual guide to the competitors, which means a born-again Christian expression of benevolence never leaves her features, even when she's smashing a few concrete blocks in with her bare hands. If she'd done that in Anna she might have secured the Academy Award after all.

But our real stars are Roberts and Rhee, although Rhee ensures he has the showstopping moment of drama come the grand finale. Before that, they both find themselves picked for the team, along with an Italian to remind us of Rocky - American sports combat moves all take their cue from that rather than Hong Kong or Japanese efforts - and a comedy nerd (well, he wears glasses anyway) who has a very strange line in humour, something that could be said of the whole production. Take the fifth member of our team, a cowboy called Travis Bickle, sorry, Brickley, played by Chris Penn, and lumbered with a truly cringemaking racist personality trait that he has to overcome to be welcomed into the fold.

Except he doesn't overcome it, even more bizarrely the others get to like it and cheerfully indulge his prejudiced ignorance and accompanying bon mots, apparently because he's not Korean and therefore wouldn't think of, ooh, I dunno, killing Tommy's brother in a fight. Don't worry if you think the Koreans are being demonised because the script thinks up a way around this unfortunate message; it's not quite the climax of Rocky IV it thinks it is, but it'll do. The emotional conflicts here wouldn't be out of place on a daytime soap opera if they had people employing martial arts in those, where Alex has to give up his place on the team when his son is run over, but then wins it back when Jones' psychopathically hardline team leader relents so we can see he's a nice guy after all. With everything here apparently constructed from cardboard except the fighters, Best of the Best is recommended to those who get their kicks from seeing trained fighters kick. And punch. Music by Paul Gilman.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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