Best of the Best (1989) director Robert Radler returned to helm this sequel, working from a screenplay by Max Strom (who supplied additional dialogue to the first movie) and John Allen Nelson that made this follow-up a very different sort of film than its predecessor.
The setting is Las Vegas, where three members of the five member US National Karate Team assembled in the previous film have moved to open a karate studio. Those returning actors and characters: Eric Robert as Alex Grady, single father to an 11-year-old son named Walter, who is working to earn his own black belt; Phillip Rhee (who also produced) as the noble Tommy Lee; and Chris Penn as obnoxious cowboy Travis Brickley. Given their antagonistic relationship during their days of training together for the US National team, you wouldn’t expect Tommy and Travis to remain such close friends that they become business partners, but that’s how it’s gone. Their friendship is a very important part of the story Strom and Nelson came up with.
It’s no surprise that Travis’s attitude and approach to life end up causing major trouble for his friends and especially for himself.
Unbeknownst to his friends, Travis has been attempting to make some extra cash on the side by fighting in “no rules”, “modern gladiator” bouts held in a venue called The Coliseum, which is located beneath a dance club called The Stock Exchange. The rich and powerful gather in the stands that surround the arena and bet on the fights, in which anyone can compete against the house gladiators. Defeat one gladiator, win $20,000. Defeat the second gladiator, receive $50,000. If a fighter can beat the third gladiator, they earn the right to challenge the master and owner of The Coliseum, the never defeated “champion of the underworld” Brakus (played by the hulking Ralf Moeller). Brakus is so confident that he will never be beaten that he lays it all on the line when he goes up against a challenger: if they win the fight, they become the new owner of The Coliseum.
Equally confident in his own abilities, Travis becomes Brakus’s latest challenger. As Travis quickly comes to find out, he is no match for Brakus. After the champion has handily beaten Travis to the ground, a curtain closes off the soundproof arena from most of the spectators, the video monitors switch off, and a select few people watching from the stands are given a choice. The same sort of choice that was given in the gladiator games of old. Life or death? The well-dressed people watching and cheering the fight choose to have Brakus kill Travis. And so he does, snapping his neck.
Tragically, Walter Grady has witnessed all of this, as Travis was his babysitter for the night and had snuck the kid into the rafters of The Coliseum. He escapes from The Stock Exchange and runs home to tell Alex and Tommy what he saw. Walter’s story is confirmed when Travis’s body is found floating at the Hoover Dam with his car crashed nearby to make it look like an accident.
With police buying the accident business, Tommy and Alex are forced to take matters into their own hands. They storm Brakus’s personal domain, where Travis’s killer admits to the crime. A fight breaks out, with Tommy managing to damage Brakus’s face before he and Alex have to make an escape.
Knowing Tommy and Alex are trouble, and even more so angry about the scar Tommy has given him, Brakus orders his men to kill Alex and Walter, but to bring Tommy back to him alive. As his heavily armed men go after Tommy, Alex, and Walter, car chases and shootouts ensue.
Our heroes are forced to go on the run, ending up at the home of Tommy’s Native American grandmother. How a Korean man has a Native American grandmother is a mystery. Alex tells Walter he’ll explain Tommy’s lineage to him at some point, but the audience is never given the information. Also on his grandmother’s ranch is his alcoholic, underground tournament fighter uncle James, who Tommy hasn’t seen in sixteen years. And as it turns out, James quite coincidentally has a history with Brakus.
A large portion of Best of the Best dealt with the training the US team went through in preparation for the competition against Team Korea, and while the characters are at Tommy’s grandma’s place, part 2 also lapses into a training segment as Tommy and Alex start training for a fight against Brakus, first by themselves and later under the tutelage of James, who claims he can teach them how to beat the fighter who ruined his life years earlier. In addition to their running and strength training, James also incorporates stick fighting and time in a sweat lodge.
Unfortunately, the training is far from complete when Brakus’s men (which include familiar character actors Patrick Kilpatrick and Nicholas Worth) raid the ranch, engage James in a deadly gunfight, and fly Tommy back to Vegas in a helicopter so Brakus can force him to compete in The Coliseum. Tommy must fight his way up the ranks to face off against the champion of the underworld, who wants to punish him for challenging his invincibility and scarring his perfection.
While the climactic battle between Tommy and Brakus commences, Alex gets some more action of his own as he infiltrates the building with the help of some old (enemies turned) friends in an effort to rescue Tommy from the bowels of The Stock Exchange.
Best of the Best II represents one of the craziest shifts in tone and genre a series has ever gone through. The first movie had been a straightforward tournament fight sports drama, the idea that the sequel would feature gunfire and explosions almost seems absurd, it’s as if Sylvester Stallone had written Homefront (which ended up starring Jason Statham rather than himself) to be a sequel to Rocky or Over the Top. And yet that’s exactly what these filmmakers did, took characters from a drama and dropped them into an action movie.
In the midst of the action elements, this sequel is still at it’s core a fighting movie, although its tournaments are much different than the official, international competition Tommy, Alex, and Travis previously fought in. That doesn’t make them any less entertaining to watch, there are some fantastic, hard-hitting brawls in this movie.
It strikes me now how odd it is that they took this path for part 2, but at the time when Best of the Best II was first released on VHS, I didn’t find how different of a movie it was to be jarring or strange at all, I just went with it. In fact, I thought it was awesome to see the characters I had grown to care for in part 1 being put through action scenarios.
I also immediately became a fan of the character James, a guy who’s a good fighter if he could just stop drunk-vomiting for a moment. He’s brilliantly brought to life by Sonny Landham of Predator and 48 Hrs., and James’s fate always bummed me out.
Another cast member new to the series was such an obvious choice that it’s genius – Weldon, The Coliseum’s ring announcer, is played by Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton.
Like he did in the first film, where he played a redneck named Burt who Travis has some trouble with in a bar, stuntman/Jason Voorhees performer Kane Hodder plays a role here, this time appearing as a security guard at The Stock Exchange/Coliseum.
Best of the Best II is a movie that I have enjoyed ever since I was a young kid. Comparing it to its predecessor in retrospect may make me ponder “What were they thinking?”, but whatever put it in their minds to give the series such an overhaul, I’m glad they thought of it, because twenty years I later I still find this sequel to be a lot of fun to watch.