Cast: Eric Roberts, Phillip Rhee, James Earl Jones, Chris Penn
Genre: American Martial Arts
U.S Box Office Gross: over $1 million
Plot: Five American martial artists prepare to battle the South Korean champions in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul
Best of the Best Is Also The Best Of The Rest Of This Series
Best of the Best, though whilst it may not rank alongside Police Story, Drunken Master and Enter The Dragon, still stands up as a legitimate martial arts action film in its own right. I enjoy my martial arts films but in Best of the Best, it's not so much I let this one slip me by, rather it is one that I didn't want to see. For years, I was put off from seeing this film, all because I couldn't envisage Eric Roberts in his role as Alex and in being able to pass himself off as an action movie star. Yet after a recent viewing, I was happy to have been proven wrong - thanks to the admirable script, Roberts does a really great job. I'm also surprised that he didn't completely go down the action movie route after this film, although his filmography is pretty diverse, roles-wise by playing antagonists, as well as protagonists.
Likewise, hand on heart I'd say this film deserves a place alongside Kickboxer, The Karate Kid and Bloodsport as legitimate competition-based martial arts flicks. The casting is excellent and they got it, spot-on. It is one of those films where the action supplements the drama of the film and not the other way round, and so if you are more into full-on, wall-to-wall martial arts films, such as Police Story, Enter The Dragon, or any of Jean-Claude Van Damme's offerings which heavily focus on the action side of things, then this may not be for you. But Best of the Best is entertaining throughout; the film is also heavily focused on the characters collective and individual situations. Some have a personal motive for competing in the Olympics, but it's never too malicious, nor is there an intent of threat evoked through them. For others like Alex, he just wants to prove to his kid what a heroic fighter he truly is. The fight set pieces and scenes are really good for a American martial arts based film.
Eric Roberts as Alex Grady is the sympathetic single dad and widower to a young son with an 80s' style mullet Lethal Weapon's Martin Riggs would be most proud of. He works as a mechanic as a car manufacturing company or something. Of the five fighters, his character arc stood out for me more: he is not an actual fighter, he's just a regular Joe who is trying to reconnect with the one thing he is good at in life, which is taekwondo. A lot of people thought that Roberts was overacting when his character dislocated his shoulder - I thought his reaction was genuine and no doubt I'm sure it hurts like hell.
Phillip Ree was equally as good as well: his pace is electrifying at times to watch & he does display great technique throughout. His character has to control his rage and find peace, as he is still haunted by the death of his brother. James Earl Jones was his usual self as the US team's coach and he was all right and the late Chris Penn, as much of a racist jerk his character was, even though he is a big guy himself, he doesn't let that hold him back. His fighting style (as well as someone like Sammo Hung) here shows that one does not have to be physically toned with huge biceps and rippling six packs to be able to throw in some good kicks. If there is a weak link of the film, it has to be the female trainer: she may be knowledgeable in her field, but characterisation-wise, she was boring and had nothing going for her.
As an '80s action flick, it can't get any more '80s as the terrible music and big hair, Best of the Best is more on the same lines as The Karate Kid: this is the grown up version of that film, mixed with a bit of Rocky but with arguably more realistic and better fight scenes and slightly more comprehensive performances. Though I can see why a lot of people will not enjoy this film, partly because they are not into martial arts films, I am sometimes besides myself into why some think this film is excruciatingly terrible - because I disagree.
Best of the Best is also the best film of the entire series, no doubt about that, and stands out from so many other martial arts films because it is less about martial arts and pulling off swanky moves, but more of a film where martial arts is a sport, a competition. Therefore, it does have that competitive aspect to it. Though it is categorised as more of a B-movie at first glance if you give it a chance you will see to it that Best of The Best has some depth and range going for it as well. And yes there are stereotypes and cliches, but as predictable as this film gets, especially with the ending, which I think they milked it a little too much, it's the execution that decides for me whether it is of worth as a film of this particular genre, - and Best of The Best's execution is highly enjoyable.
As I watched this film, I could definitely see to it that the producers & all the people involved in this effort really went out of their way to pay attention towards the art of taekwondo and the values, traditions, the styles it encapsulates and are so respectful towards it that it translates so well on film. They put a positive spin and emphasised that this film is not about winning and competing and fighting, but it's about being true to yourself as a person. I believe the message that it evokes is honest, sincere, even if it is a tad cheesy, but I still buy into it. I also thought that when the fighters square off against one another, one-to-one, I could sense that tension that really ups the film to the max.
Though today, it is still not taken seriously by a lot of people, particularly fans of action films and martial arts movies as a definitive film of this genre, Best of the Best still stands up today and contrary to criticism, it does more right than it does wrong. A lot of people will see to it as a 'so bad it's good' type of film and one people will laugh at - I for one think it is a fun action romp with some good drama and performances, not least by Eric Roberts, whose mere presence makes it watchable and entertaining for me.
I've yet to see parts 2, 3 and 4, though I've read that 3 and 4 aren't as good as the first film.
But Best of the Best is an enjoyable and decent kick-ass film and I award this film an extra mark for the action scenes. Even though it is not one of the best and greatest martial arts films ever produced, I really enjoyed it.