If there’s ever a film that requires you to judge it on its own merits, it’s “Best Of The Best”. You’ll need to put far from your mind the thought that two of the main cast are, being polite, not in the shape you’d expect of top martial artists; and that you’re pretty sure that’s not how teams are picked for what must be relatively minor international challenges. Oh, plus most of the rest of the film is bonkers too. Would you expect anything else?
The thing is, this film is sort of a classic. A bold statement, but it’s so single-minded and so completely earnest that our irony-drenched 21st century brains may not be able to cope with it. Eric Roberts is Alex, a blue-collar worker forced into karate retirement due to a bum shoulder, who’s also looking after his 5-year old son due to the death of his wife. Can he have any more sadness heaped on him? But a ray of light comes in the form of a letter inviting him to a tryout for the US National Karate Team, going for a special event taking on the South Koreans, regarded as the best in the world (they specially train 12 months a year, and so on).
Joining him on the team are a splendid mix of people – Travis, a cowboy from Miami, of all places (Chris Penn); Sonny, an Italian-American; Virgil, a Buddhist; and Tommy, who’s got a special reason for being there, and not just because he’s also the writer and producer. His big brother was killed in the ring by Korean captain Dae Han years ago and Tommy witnessed it, so he finally has a chance for some revenge.
Joining the gang of five is head trainer James Earl Jones and ridiculous new age nonsense-spouter Sally Kirkland, who sure loves to say meaningless things like “centre yourself” and “breathe out all the negativity”. The training section is the longest, because not only have they got to get good at fighting, they’ve got to deal with their ISSUES. Alex’s son is injured and he has to leave the training camp to care for him, jeopardising his place; Travis has to stop being such a massive racist (a weird attribute for a karate black belt who must have interacted with hundreds of Asian guys); and Tommy has to decide how important revenge is to him, and can he conquer his fear of fully committing to a punch or kick?
The thing to notice about this is that every emotion is at an absolute fever pitch. Alex tosses his magnificent mane around and lets you know just how important this competition is to him, as is his son! Jones is in charge of this team, dammit! Don’t you dare try and force some new trainer on him! I can only guess that someone tried to play a scene in a subdued way on the first day of filming and they got shot by the director, whose only direction was “BIGGER!” Watching them wildly over-emote while dealing with what are fairly minor issues is a joy.
With some films, you can see the plan they had with hiring the actors they did, but with this one it genuinely seems random – James Earl Jones as a karate trainer? Chris Penn as a redneck blackbelt? At least one makes sense – Dae Han and Tommy Lee are real-life brothers. The mix ends up being fun, though, even though you know it’s unlikely as hell. Will they bond and earn the right to wear their “Team USA” tracksuits?
The last third of the film is the big tournament in Korea, and there’s some sweet matchups. It’s at this point you realise that Tommy is the star of the movie – fights last, has the huge emotional moment as tears stream down everyones’ faces – but his teammates get their licks in too. The fighting is well shot and exciting, and a little unusual to we viewers of martial arts movies – there’s only one fight outside a ring, and there appear to be rules which are actually adhered to!
I LOVE THIS MOVIE!! There’s so much to enjoy, mostly related to Eric Roberts and his amazing performance. Him teaching his kid to ride a bike at the beginning is so amazingly funny without meaning to be, and there’s so much more like that, including his superb final fight. He really is the gift that keeps on giving, and if he wasn’t doing it deliberately it’s one of the weirdest performances in movie history. It’s just so good! Philip Rhee is significantly better than some of the other vanity producer-stars we’ve seen in martial arts movies, yet the four “Best Of The Best” movies represent the beginning and end of his writing, producing and directing careers (although he’s got a new film coming out which seems to be the same plot as this one, only centred around street kids fighting Beverly Hills kids in a karate tournament, with a similarly randomly-assembled cast).
I would lay good odds on the three sequels not being able to match this quality, but if you even remotely enjoy martial arts overcoming-adversity movies, then you really ought to give this a go. Heck, you could even introduce your kids to properly brilliant movies using this – no sex, no nudity, the only real violence is in a sanctioned martial arts environment, plenty of laughs and plenty of drama. And that ending! Enough to melt the coldest heart.
Rating: thumbs up