I recently picked up the Best of the Best series on Blu-ray from the UK; it doesn’t have any special features (or subtitles) but the movies are entertaining enough that they are all worth owning. So I thought I’d watch them all and do a brief retrospective. Enjoy!
P.S. I do go into a few spoilers so tread carefully.
Best of the Best (1989)
Plot: A team from the United States is going to compete against Korea in a Tae Kwon Do tournament. The team consists of fighters from all over the country–can they overcome their rivalry and work together to win?
Best of the Best is one of my favourite martial arts tournament movies of all time; rather than being filled with action stars it has actors in the main roles giving us a surprisingly moving story with memorable characters and a tear jerking ending which is not something you would expect from a movie such as this.
Although he has played a lot of villains over his career Eric Roberts makes an incredibly sympathetic protagonist; what he goes through in the movie feels very real. When he has to leave because his son Walter has been in an accident, you can almost feel his pain as a parent. He lost his wife a few years before and his life has been filled with just bad luck.
James Earl Jones is the coach who at first is hard as nails and pretty merciless but when it’s revealed why he is so tough on them you understand his motivations.
The always entertaining John P. Ryan has a small role as Jennings, but he always made an impression as he was rarely subtle.
Chris Penn plays Travis, an arrogant redneck who is at first racist and generally unsympathetic but once again by the time it all comes together everyone comes together to become a team.
All of the characters have their own motivations and Phillip Rhee, who plays Tommy Lee has the most moving scene at the end. He entered the competition to avenge his brother’s death but rather than a simple revenge tale, he’s more scared of getting in the ring and the consequences of his actions. He faces off against the eyepatch wearing Dae Han (Phillip’s brother Simon Rhee) who was responsible for his brother’s death and is a skilled opponent.
Best of the Best has one of my favourite endings to a fighting tournament movie; rather than painting the Koreans as a one note adversary they are honourable and if you don’t shed a tear during Dae Han’s speech you are a heartless monster.
It was such a ballsy and moving ending to what could have been just another tournament movie where the good guys win.
The script is still very strong and for the most part hasn’t dated; it has genuine heart and emotion to it where everyone feels authentic.
The first half is practically one long training montage but since when is that ever a bad thing? It has one of the best bar fights of the 80’s with the whole team throwing down. Keep your eyes open for Kane Hodder (Jason from the Friday the 13th sequels) as he plays one of the bar thugs but he also appears in the second and third movies in minor roles.
Overall, Best of the Best remains a classic and is arguably one of the most surprisingly moving martial arts movie you’ll see with great characters, epic training montages and a truly emotional finale.
Best of the Best II (1993)
Plot: The Colosseum is the fighting arena owned by the champion Bracus. Now after the death of their friend, Rhee and Roberts want revenge.
As great as the first movie is with its emotional storyline I think I love this sequel even more; it carries on the story directly with Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) and Alex Grady (Eric Roberts) going out for revenge after their friend Travis (Chris Penn) is killed in the ring of The Coliseum owned by Brakus (played by a savagely huge Ralf Moeller).
Brakus has never been defeated but when Tommy leaves him with a scar on his face he will stop at nothing to track Tommy down and bring him into The Coliseum for a final showdown.
Best of the Best II is a who’s who of 90’s action movies with Patrick Kilpatrick (Death Warrant) playing a nasty henchman and then we have the late Sonny Landham as James who is a borderline alcoholic that has a past with Tommy but despite their differences he helps to train Tommy and Alex to take down Brakus. Cue multiple training montages and David Michael Frank’s epic electric guitar theme tune. This has the best score of the series and I still listen to it any time I work out.
Meg Foster usually played villains in so many movies but in this she is the love interest of Alex and has a good heart so it’s nice to see her on the right side for once.
I love how the Korean fighters return in this movie and join Tommy and Alex as it continues on everything nicely making their friendship believable… in an action movie way.
Although there is still a fighting tournament this is more of an all-out action movie with guns and explosions to go along with the endless goons that need destroying. It still holds up as a cracking action movie with Phillip Rhee showing he is a real talent with some awesome fights.
Alex’s son Walter returns and fails to get his black belt because he is puny and weak… then for some reason it is never mentioned again. You bring shame to your family, Walter.
This is the last entry with Eric Roberts and it sort of feels like a passing of the torch with Tommy the real protagonist and Roberts is more of the sidekick.
Overall, Best of the Best II is still an awesome action movie with a great cast, near constant action and a memorable villain in Brakus. It’s arguably as good as the first movie and maybe the best of the sequels making it well worth checking out.
Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back (1995)
Plot: On a soul-searching cross-country drive, veteran martial artist Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) stops in the small Midwestern town of Liberty to visit his sister Karen (Cristina Anzu Lawson) and her sheriff husband, Jack (Christopher McDonald). White supremacist leader Preacher Brian (R. Lee Ermey) and his minions have been stirring up trouble in town, but, when they attack schoolteacher Margo Preston (Gina Gershon) for speaking out against their message of hatred, Tommy reluctantly joins the fight.
Best of the Best III is a different beast from the first two and really could have just been called something else; as I stated above Eric Roberts is no longer in the series so Phillip Rhee becomes the lead returning as Tommy Lee with the only connection being that he is riddled with guilt after killing Brakus at the end of the second movie so he gave up teaching martial arts and has felt lost since.
He comes to visit his sister in a small town which has essentially been taken over by Neo Nazi scum; so it’s up to Tommy to take out the trash.
This is a profoundly satisfying action movie directed by Rhee himself with stunts coordinated by his brother Simon Rhee; there are numerous fights with Lee trying to preach that hate isn’t the answer but the Nazis disagree so he is forced to fight to protect his family. Lee doesn’t actually show up until 17 minutes into the film but the previous 16 minutes set up the story with a rather disturbing scene featuring Donnie Hansen (Mark Rolston) beating up and murdering a black reverend called Luther with a baseball bat.
This is clearly preaching the positive message that hate is never the answer and Tommy is a truly sympathetic hero. Rhee brings great empathy to the character and you can’t help but root for him to clean up the town.
The gorgeous Gina Gershon plays teacher Margo who is also Tommy’s love interest; she stands up to the Nazis when no one else will which also makes her a target.
Mark Rolston is pure evil and has real presence as Donnie; this gives the film a constant air of threat as his thugs appear to be waiting around every corner to attack anyone they see as different.
R. Lee Ermy is a little underused but his mere presence never disappoints as he is the head of the Nazi clan… until Donnie wants a change in leadership.
Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald) himself shows up as a local Sheriff who seems powerless to stop this menace and it’s not until his wife is attacked and his kids are taken that he joins up with Tommy for a final explosive showdown.
The last 30 minutes are worth the wait as Lee and the Sheriff lay siege to the Nazi’s compound with lots of explosions, RPGs and a climactic punch up between Lee and Donnie. It’s never dull for a second and although it’s a far cry from the first movie it’s still an awesome action flick that’s well worth your time.
Best of the Best 4: Without Warning (1998)
Plot: When a girl fleeing Russian mobsters plants a stolen computer disk on Tommy Lee, the martial arts expert finds himself unwittingly thrust into his most harrowing adventure ever.
The fourth and final entry in the Best of the Best series bears absolutely no resemblance to the other movies but as an action movie in its own right it’s still massively enjoyable. Phillip Rhee once again returns as Tommy Lee and somehow now has a daughter who is 6 years old despite the fact there is only 3 years between this and the third movie, so I guess more time has elapsed.
Anyway, where would action movies be without the good old stolen disc that bad guys are trying to retrieve from our oblivious hero? This is pretty standard stuff in terms of story but when you have Tobin Bell as your main villain and a sizeable role from Sven Ole Thorson as a henchman then what’s not to like? Thure Riefenstein is also a real piece of work as Tobin’s brother who tortures Tommy in one of the most brutal scenes of the franchise.
The action is bigger in scale than the other entries with some ambitious set-pieces including an impressive heist in the opening scene and an explosive finale at an airport.
As you’d expect there are regular fisticuffs with Phillip Rhee once again making for an awesome lead and he deserved to become an A-list star. My favourite fight scene is Tommy’s escape from the villain’s lair and he ends up in a dojo and is forced to fight his way out against multiple opponents. It felt reminiscent of the dojo fight from Fist of Fury.
Tommy gets a few action hero one-liners but also gets to demonstrate that he is a man of faith. I like how he only tries to injure his opponents rather than kill them. If this was say Steven Seagal he would likely stick a pool cue up their behinds and make kebabs out of them.
Action movie staple Ernie Hudson makes for an intimidating presence at first as a tough detective who thinks Tommy murdered his partner but when he finds out what is really going on then he realises Tommy isn’t his enemy. His character reminds me of Albrecht (in The Crow) who smokes too much but by the end he decides it’s now a good time to quit. Just stop smoking, Ernie! Those things will kill ya!
In the third movie Tommy gets to run from multiple explosions in slow motion which immediately made him an icon of action. In this movie he is on a motorbike in a rather cool chase scene; a truck explodes in a tunnel and he gets to drive away in slow motion (naturally) while looking totally badass at the same time.
Overall, Best of the Best 4 is hugely entertaining with no shortage of action and it rockets along at a fast pace with malevolent villains and a genuinely satisfying finale.
So that’s my brief look back at the Best of the Best franchise. I really enjoy all four movies and Phillip Rhee was awesome as Tommy Lee. The franchise is packed with fights, explosions and emotional moments (that admittedly never quite match the first movie) but it’s still wonderfully escapist fun so if for some reason you have never seen these movies then best jump on Amazon ASAP.