Korean American Phillip Rhee grew up studying martial arts since the age of four, earning multiple black belts in Tae-Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do, always dreaming of someday breaking into the film industry. Movie opportunities did soon present themselves, and by his late twenties Rhee was working on crews, producing, and had a few acting credits to his name.
In 1980, Rhee’s martial arts abilities had landed him a place representing the United States on the Tae Kwon Do Team in the Korean Olympics/Asian Games. His experience in this international competition inspired Rhee to make a film based around a similar situation. He co-wrote the story for Best of the Best with screenwriter Paul Levine and as a producer was able to get the project off the ground with himself in one of the lead roles.
Rhee plays Tommy Lee, a karate instructor and one of many fighters skilled in martial arts who are invited to compete for the opportunity to become part of the US National Karate Team and compete against Team Korea in an upcoming tournament.
Characters gather together from all over the United States and all walks of life to fight matches against each other so the committee and coach Frank Couzo can create a team consisting of the five best fighters among them.
When it’s all said and done, the men on the US National Karate Team are: Tommy Lee, Italian ladies man Sonny Grasso, calm and intellectual Buddhist Virgil Keller, rude and racially insensitive cowboy Travis Brickley, and fighter-turned-family man Alex Grady. Grady is a controversial choice behind the scenes; he used to be a fighter but had to retire when his shoulder was badly injured, requiring surgery involving plastic and pins. Couzo insists that Grady be on the team, he was one of the five best competitors they saw and the team needs him.
Grady needs the team, too. A single father of a five-year-old son, Grady has been toiling away in a factory since being forced to leave fighting behind, and the workaday life is crushing his spirit.
As soon as the five team members are picked, they’re thrust into a life of constant training. Team Korea trains all year round, subsisting on government funding, so the US team has to try to gain a whole lot of ground in a short period of time. For the three months building up to the tournament, they will live in a dormitory and spend all day every day training.
But first, they have one last night of freedom, which is spent at a bar. Of course, the night ends with a huge bar fight, initiated when Travis upsets a local (played by stuntman Kane Hodder, best known for playing slasher Jason Voorhees for four films in the Friday the 13th franchise) by getting a little too close and touchy-feely with his girl. The karate masters make quick work of the locals who attack them, with even Tommy reluctantly taking part in the fight. He tells his students never to use their skills against another person, but it’s a self defense situation and he’s forced to.
Training begins the next day, with Couzo and his regular trainer Don Peterson being joined by another trainer, Catherine Wade (Gasp! A female!). Couzo forced Grady onto the team despite the objections of a higher-up, now Wade is forced into his staff at the demand of the higher-up. While Couzo and Peterson’s approach is simply to put the men through intense physical training, enhanced with hi-tech equipment like a device that calculates the speed and power of kicks, Wade is there to train the men mentally with the things she’s learned while studying in the Far East. Couzo doesn’t like it, but Wade works out just fine.
As the tournament nears, the team has to deal with a lot of issues and potential setbacks. Couzo is very demanding and doesn’t like to appear to be understanding at all. He even kicks Grady off the team for rushing to be at his little boy’s side after he’s injured in a car accident. Travis doesn’t get along with anybody. Tommy is psychologically tormented by memories of his older brother being killed in a match against Korean fighter Dae Han Park… who happens to be the fighter Tommy will be going against in the tournament.
However, all issues are overcome, and Couzo reveals that he actually does have a heart, just in time for the intact and functional team to catch their flight to Korea.
A lot of the running time up to that point has been dedicated to scenes of the team going through their training, intercut with shots of Team Korea training. The third act consists entirely of the US/Korea tournament, the culmination of all the hard work we’ve seen the fighters putting in.
Directed by Robert Radler, Best of the Best may not exactly live up to its title in comparison to some of the many other movies in the sports drama genre, but it certainly is among the ranks of the best the genre has to offer.
The characters are very likeable, we get behind them and root for them… even Travis, despite how much of a jerk he can be… They’re established as the underdogs in this competition, and we want to see them do well against the very intimidating Team Korea. Well shot and choreographed, with sound design and the score by composer Paul Gilman adding weight to it all, the fights in the tournament are exciting, intense, bloody, and painful.
The story Rhee and Levine came up with is great, providing the characters with depth that makes the tournament something more than just a display of people kicking and punching each other. During the fights there are payoffs to elements that have been set up earlier as well as resolution to dramatic storylines. There are cheer-worthy moments in the competition, but more than that there are moments that make me want to cry due to how effective they are at tugging my heartstrings.
That much of a connection with the characters is able to be made not just because of Rhee and Levine’s writing, but also because of the actors who portray them. Rhee himself did an incredible and endearing job in the role of Tommy, and he’s surrounded by a cast that includes Eric Roberts as Grady, Chris Penn as Travis, and James Earl Jones as Couzo.
I’ve been a fan of Best of the Best ever since I started catching airings of it on cable movie channels when I was six, and I watched it (and the sequels that followed) many times throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s. Watching it again twenty-five years after its initial release, I still find it to be a very good, entertaining, emotionally involving movie with some great fight scenes.