February Fisticuffs: Best of the Best (1989)



It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.

When it comes to the martial arts genre, “the tournament” is one of the more common setups. Bob Radler’s Best of the Best works the tournament cliché to the bone, pitting Americans against Koreans in a battle for supremacy the likes of which the world has never seen. Kind of.

With a screenplay by Paul Levine and Phillip Rhee, Best of the Best has a number of interesting features. For one, it stars Eric Roberts. In fairness, Roberts plays second fiddle to Rhee in terms of martial arts ability and central theatrics. But it’s clear that Julia’s brother is the access point in Radler’s world, his remarkable mane thankfully lacking its Delilah.

Roberts stars as Alexander Grady, widower and father to Walter (Edan Gross). Alexander is tapped for an international martial arts tournament in Korea, where he’ll be on a team to represent the United States. He has a bum shoulder, but ain’t nobody worried about that. Alexander heads off for the rigorous training session under coach Frank Couzo (James Earl Jones).

Other members of the American team include Tommy Lee (Rhee) and the cowboy Travis Bickley (Christopher Penn). The other members are pretty nondescript, but they fulfill their duties as combat with the Koreans looms. Lee, in particular, is put into a fight against the dude (Simon Rhee) who killed his brother in a previous go-around.

Best of the Best has all the pieces for a cliché-ridden martial arts tournament, from the “dude with a secret past” to the “emotional dad with a cute kid who eventually has some kind of injury but recovers in time to see his emotional dad fight despite nearly costing his emotional dad a berth in the tournament because the coach is a hardass.”

Roberts pulls off the right mix of overdoing it and really overdoing it, bringing a wild blare of emotion to his part as Walter goes down predictable fashion. The malleable script even does the courtesy of starting Best of the Best with Alexander showing his kid how to ride a bike, just so the impact of him hitting the business end of a Buick (or something) tugs at the heartstrings.

Lee has the more interesting story, but it’s all couched in combat and brotherhood and rituals. These sacraments come together at the end after the moderately amusing fighting is done, with the Koreans showing honour in light of victory and the Americans getting what they came for anyway because everyone tried really hard and USA, USA, USA.

Amid it all, Lee is washed away in a tide of existential woe because the guy who slaughtered his brother makes amends. That puts the character in one hell of an awkward position, especially after it becomes apparent that nobody else on the good ol’ American team would afford the same mercy or grace.

Penn is mildly entertaining as the Obnoxious American Prototype and he runs counter to Lee’s refinement, which makes one wonder what the bar-brawling racist cowpoke is doing in the tournament in the first place. Penn’s not convincing as a martial artist (even Roberts pulls off the look better) and his movements are hokey like a line dance.

Jones’ head coach is another piece of the cliché puzzle, but the actor’s voice is really all that matters. The audience is supposed to buy him as some former martial artist. The audience is also supposed to buy Sally Kirkland as a training coach nobody in this macho 1980s world hits on. Now that’s a tough sell, bro.

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