Sunday, 12 September 2010

Best of the Best (1989)

Sally Kirkland assures Eric Roberts that "There is no pain."
Easy for you to say, lady.

I got this film (and it's sequel) in one of those cheap boxed sets of martial arts flicks, but it stands out amongst the others in that it's more like a real movie, with a cast of recognisable actors and a script that's more about human drama rather than kicking people in the face. It's actually more of an inspirational sports movie about that just so happens to be about martial arts, rather than a straight action film. It's like Karate Kid for grown-ups, or at least Karate Kid starring grown-ups.

The main character is Alex Grady (Eric Roberts), a auto-factory worker and single dad. He is thrilled when he is offered the chance to tryout for the U.S. National Karate team and fight in an exhibition match in Korea (they are clearly practicioners of Tae Kwon Do, but the movies uses the two terms interchangeably), even though he has a busted shoulder from a previous competition. Making the team will also mean being separated from his son for three months, so in return he makes the somewhat brash promise that he will win the competition.

During the tryouts we are introduced to the rest of the team. There's a Korean dude named Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee). There's a Buddhist new-age hippy type named Virgil (John Dye). There's Travis (Chris Penn), a racist asshole who wears a cowboy hat and carries around a boom box blasting country music. Lastly there's Sonny (David Agresta) who... is Italian. When Sonny meets Virgil he makes a comment about a competitor that "His momma probably didn't breastfeed him right" and Virgil responds "Uh, breastfeeding is actually very high in iron, I was very fond of it as a child." Kind of weird. I don't know, maybe he was one of those kids who was breastfed until he was six. Would explain a lot, actually.

There's also one of those tough-as-nails coach types, Couzo, played by James Earl Jones. He's a pretty great choice for the role since he spends most of the movie yelling at people in his booming baritone. After the team makes selection he gives them one of those "for the next three months your ass is mine" type speeches where he insists that they will "eat, sleep and shit competition", although if you're eating and shitting competition it would suggest that you're not properly digesting the competition. Try some enzyme supplements or probiotic yoghurt.

The rest of the movie follows the standard sports movie template. There is some tension between team members at first but eventually they learn to work together etc. Couzo believes in establishing comraderie through adversity, for instance his first team-building exercise is to take them to a bar and watch them wreck shop in a bar fight. Travis's unrepentant racism never seems to be as much of a problem to Couzo as it probably should be. At one point he makes racist comments to Tommy (small penis jokes, owning a laundry etc) and everybody laughs, even Couzo. You're training for a Tae Kwon Do competition, asshole, you don't get to be racist. By the end of the movie it seems like Travis has worked through his issues, but I guess that must have happened off screen.

Although Alex Grady is ostensibly the hero of the movie, Tommy Lee is probably the most interesting character. It's revealed that when he was a boy his brother was killed during a match with the Korean champion Dae Han. Consequently Tommy is scared of hurting his opponents and pulls his punches (and kicks). When the coach finally convinces him to let loose he breaks the pressure-sensing pad and knocks Virgil unconscious. Tommy is so guilt-stricken that he gets on his motorcycle and rides off, but is driven back to the team through the power of the 80s rock montage. In fact, lovers of the 80s rock montage will find a lot to like about this film, as it doesn't go five minutes without a training montage of some description.

Couzo has an assistant named Don (Tom Everett) who compiles statistics and handles the technical stuff, but he is also forced to take on an expert in Eastern philosophy to help with the spiritual side of their training. Her name is Catherine Wade and she's played by... uh... Sally Kirkland. Couzo isn't happy and I'm with him on this one. She's acts like a new-age flake and doesn't do anything except teach yoga, meditation and recite cheesy fortune-cookie sayings. They don't even have one of those flashbacks where one of the guys remembers her words of wisdom and it inspires them to victory. They could have easily cut her from the movie without losing anything.

She also wimps up the place by whining that Couzo's being too harsh on his team. On some level she's got a point; just before the big match Alex's son gets hit by a car and put into a coma, and when Alex insists that he go to visit his son Couzo kicks him off the team. He lets him back in obviously, and even flies his son out to Seoul to watch the big match, but I don't know what kind of strings he had to pull to the fly the kid out just a day or two after he woke up from a coma. Turns out that Couzo was the coach of the U.S. team when Tommy's brother was killed by Dae Han, and he blames himself for not pushing them hard enough and teaching them to ignore irrelevant distractions like their loved ones being in comas etc.

The Korean team are presented as single-minded martial-arts robots. They train 24/365 and never speak except to bark orders in unsubtitled Korean. Dae Han even wears an eyepatch. However, the more I think about it the more I feel that the American team are actually the bad guys of the movie. The U.S. team are these cocky outsiders with no respect for Eastern tradition or culture, and at least one of them is an unrepentant racist. During the interleaved training montages we see that the Americans use state-of-the-art gym equipment and high-tech pressure pads, like Ivan Drago, while the Korean team train by meditating under freezing waterfalls and jogging through the snow. In fact, during the final match the American team wear black while the Korean team wear white. I'm with Team Korea.

The final battle is shot well, but the American actors look pretty unconvincing next to the real-life Korean Tae Kwon Do experts. I had to laugh when John Dye is throwing these molasses-slow kicks and the referee is shouting that he is "capitalising on his speed". Nice try, mate. During Alex's match his opponent gives him a brutal axe kick that dislocates his gimpy shoulder, so Tommy begs his teammates to "Pop it!" and he manages to defeat him with only one arm. Very Karate-Kid-esque, he even goes into a wobbly-ass crane stance at the beginning of each round. He'll probably lose his job at the auto-factory but at least he kicked a Korean dude in the face.

By the end of the film I really thought I had a handle on where this film was going (it isn't called Second Best of the Best after all) but damned if it didn't throw me for a loop. The match comes down to a final battle between Tommy and Dae Han, with the Koreans slightly in front. Dae Han is barely standing after Tommy has kicked the crap out of him, and the rest of the team recognise that a final blow from Tommy will kill him. The team convince Tommy to hold back, running down the clock and losing the match to the Koreans. During the medal ceremony Dae Han not only thanks Tommy for holding back and apologises for killing his brother, but offers himself as a replacement brother. I don't think I've ever seen that happen in a movie before. I think they push the sentimentality a little bit too far when the Korean team hand over their well-earned medals to the Americans, but I appreciate that they went more Rocky than Rocky II-IV.

Best of the Best was produced and co-written by the guy who played Tommy, Phillip Rhee, and Dae Han was played by his real-life brother Simon. Apparently he started producing his own films after he recognised the lack of opportunities for Asian-Americans in the film industry, so it's kind of sad that such a thoroughly whitewashed film is his biggest success. Still, as far as this kind of stuff goes it's pretty good.

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