Early in Best of the Best, a long-time favorite of martial arts purists and Cinemax action buffs recently released on DVD, U.S. National Karate Team head coach Frank Couzo (James Earl Jones) gathers his newly selected squad and lays down a very simple mission statement. “A team is not a team unless you give a damn about one another,” the karate legend booms. He realizes that his ragtag bunch of wild boys from all across the U.S. of A. might not love each other, but damn it, as long as he’s the coach, they will respect each other. The assembled martial artists look back at Couzo with faces that say they’d walk through fire for him. And I have to admit, at that moment, I had the same look on my face.
Even if Best of the Best had turned out to be the worst American martial arts film ever made, it had locked me up for the next 90 minutes, and all it took was the front-and-center repetition of that one magic word that turns sports movies into morality plays: “team.”
I live in Rhode Island, about 45 minutes outside of Boston, a city that has recently become the center of the sports universe thanks largely to that one word. The New England Patriots racked up an NFL-record 21-game winning streak on the strength of a “no superstars necessary” team-first philosophy. A week and a half ago, a new breed of Red Sox, a bunch of longhaired misfits convinced that sacrificing everything for their teammates could end the most publicized drought in sports history, won the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years. “Team” is very big here, and I’m a huge sucker for it.
Best of the Best promises a similar focus on teamwork in its tale of a group of talented young American martial artists with only three months to come together in preparation for a dangerous full-contact competition against the vaunted South Korean national squad, who began non-stop government-funded martial training during childhood. But the film soon focuses on a tandem, Alex (Eric Roberts) and Tommy (Phillip Rhee), totally missing the point of a movie about a team.
Here’s everything we’re told about the rest of the U.S. team: Sonny (David Agresta) is from Detroit; Virgil (John Dye) is a Buddhist from Providence; and Travis (Christopher Penn) is a cowboy hat-wearing good ol’ boy, but in a pointless twist, he reps Miami, not Texas. That’s it. These characters are so emaciated and poorly written that they become pointless, and, with the exception of Penn, whose high-energy performance almost makes rednecks likable, they act appropriately lost and irrelevant. The same can be said of Sally Kirkland’s turn as Katherine Wade, the team’s trainer and spiritual guide; she’s little more than a token woman in a script almost entirely populated by men, and her casting reeks of the studio’s desire to put another recognizable name above the title on the one-sheet.
Even with the complete meltdown of the team concept, Best of the Best might have been salvageable if Alex and Tommy weren’t action movie clichés. Alex, the team’s elder statesman, was one of the top fighters in the world before a severe shoulder injury forced him into a General Motors assembly line, and Tommy has been crippled by fear since seeing his brother killed in the ring by Dae Han (Phillip’s brother Simon Rhee), the best fighter in the world and his opponent in the upcoming tournament. As soon as you know these facts, you can pretty much pencil in a shoulder relapse for Alex and the all-important “vengeance or mercy” decision for Tommy; it’s just a matter of whether the actors can breathe any life into the inevitable. Dude, it’s Eric Roberts. And he’s the better of the two actors. It ain’t happening.
Outside of Jones’ solid performance as the ultimate hard-ass coach, Best of the Best‘s only positive is the competition itself. What it lacks in drama—unless you haven’t been paying attention, you’ve guessed that Sonny, Virgil, and Travis will blow it and the team’s fate will rest with Alex and Tommy—it more than makes up in precision and excitement. The deft camerawork of director Bob Radler and director of photography Doug Ryan superbly spotlights the frenetic speed of world-class competition.
That speed is flawlessly reproduced through the excellent fight choreography of Simon Rhee, who pulls double duty by acting as Dae Han and coordinating the film’s stunts. Rhee constructs his fight scenes with a practiced martial artist’s eye for detail and realism; rather than presenting a vision marked by a stylized affectation for the beauty of combat as elaborate dance form, his scenes emphasize concision and quickness. Movements are shortened, muscles taut and flexed, and speed at a premium. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Rhee’s somewhat conservative choreography is the constant reminder it provides of the importance of the fight to the competitors; every move is so deliberate because any mistake could mean defeat, dishonor, or even death.
In that respect, Rhee’s choreography provides more dramatic intensity than the writing and acting combined, and, when taken together with the nimble photography, is able to make the film measurably more believably by providing cover for the obvious physical inadequacies of the American actors, particularly Penn and Agresta. The single biggest disappointment of Best of the Best‘s DVD release is the absence of bonus fight footage, commentary by Rhee, or even a featurette on the staging and planning of the fight scenes (although the disc does boast the always scintillating “Scene Selection” and “Theatrical Previews” as special options).
But even the film’s greatest success can’t survive the script’s death wish. Focusing on the well-executed choreography is increasingly difficult when you’re forced to listen to Ahmad Rashad—yes, the former Minnesota Viking and NBA Inside Stuff anchor—put on his “martial arts expert” hat and do play-by-play for the tournament. He sounds and looks completely out of his element, like he has no idea what the words he’s reading actually mean. Hearing Ahmad Rashad say “back spinning crescent kick” was pretty much the final nail in the coffin for me. If that’s not enough to turn you off, Best of the Best‘s predictably terrible heartstring-tugger of an ending should put you over the top. In any sport, coaches love to fall back on the cliché that you win as a team and you lose as a team. Despite the best efforts of some talented crewmembers, Best of the Best finishes as a resounding defeat that was never really close.