Friday, 15 October 2010

Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back (1995)

What does that clown think he's doing?

In Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, the series made the leap to direct-to-video and Robert Radler handed over directorial control to series producer Phillip Rhee. None of the cast members return save for Rhee himself, whose character Tommy Lee graduates to a starring role. It's actually quite a refreshing change, as the need for a Caucasian star in the first two movies meant they spent way too much time with Eric Roberts even though Tommy Lee was clearly the most interesting and well-developed character. I guess it's fitting that the first film where he emerges from under the shadow of Eric Roberts is the same film in which he fights racist assholes.

The bad guys are a white supremacist group who have taken over the small town of Liberty (get it?), intimidating black folks in the streets and painting racist, misspelled grafitti on the schoolhouse when the Gospel Choir come to visit. After the Reverend publishes a editorial in the newspaper condemning their actions, they kidnap him, burn down his church, and beat him to death with a baseball bat, leaving his young son orphaned. So these are some capital 'R' Racists. I'm sick of films casting white supremacists as bad guys. What about all the good things that racist skinheads have done for society? Nah, I'm just kidding; fuck those guys. Racist rednecks are probably the most perfect movie villains ever.

It's about 20 minutes in by the time Rhee arrives, but when he does he's wearing the classic hero-drifter look: blue jeans, tight white t-shirt, sunglasses and designer stubble. He's driving around in his convertible, chewing on a toothpick while a cheesy rock song about drifting plays in the background. All the bases are covered. Suddenly his car gets trashed by a passing truck, stranding him just outside of town, but luckily it's the place he was visiting anyway. When he looks for help he gets harrassed by racists in the local diner, so when he's stopped by the sheriff in the next scene you think he is going to be a racist asshole too. It turns out it's his brother-in-law Jack, played by Christopher McDonald.

You'll remember that although Tommy had a Korean family in Best of the Best, Best of the Best 2 claimed he was raised by Native Americans. Best of the Best 3 further muddies the waters by introducing his previously unmentioned sister Karen (Anzu Lawson), who is Asian. I don't think she's a fight-brother, like Dae Han from the first two movies, since she clearly can't fight. The Lee family tree is very mysterious. She and Jack have a son Justin and they've also taken in the Reverend's orphaned son Luther Jr. The Reverend is listed as missing, and although Jack suspects foul play on behalf of the white supremacists, he doesn't have any proof.

The leader of the hate group is an uncredited R. Lee Ermey, who ironically dresses like Malcom X and spreads a message of racial separatism as he tries to set up his own whites-only compound. There's also his second-in-command Donnie (Mark Rolston), who is more into the militant, shaved-headed, cross-burning type of racism. Ermey is never really painted as a good guy, but he is horrified when he discovers (via the classic clumsy-henchmen-dropping-a-crate-full-of-guns method of exposition) that Donnie is stockpiling weapons for a "race war". I thought it was refreshing that they didn't feel the need to pull the Neo-Nazi card, but by the end of the film Donnie and the men start Seig-Heil-ing for no real reason. Oh well.

There's also a subplot about a young guy joining their white power movement. His mother, played by Dee Wallace Stone, is one of those proud single mother stereotypes, down to the waitressing job at the local diner, and she makes a tearful, outraged speech about how his hate will eventually consume him. He replies "Hate has given me something to live for!" Subtle. He has several run-ins with Tommy and eventually he redeems himself in the most predictable way possible, but it would have been funnier if he'd died a nondescript henchman's death, like that guy in Desperado.

Tommy also gets a love interest (sort of), a schoolteacher played by Gina Gershnon. She's one of those feisty Southern women, and it plays out almost exactly how you'd expect. At first he makes a bad impression by saying something sexist, but later she comes over for dinner and they make playful banter in the kitchen while they flick eachother with dishtowels. Finally Tommy saves her from being raped and/or killed, completing the her final transition into action movie love-interest. I don't think they fuck though. This movie isn't that open minded about race.

By the end of the film the bad guys kidnap Luther Jr. and Tommy's nephew Justin, so Tommy and Jack storm the compound, blowing up buildings with explosives and running around armed with machine guns. This would seem to contradict Tommy's earlier statements about how killing goes against everything he believes in, although to be fair I don't think he actually shoots anyone. One of the chief henchmen "Tiny" is taken out by flying debris in one of the explosions, but I guess he can justify that as collateral damage. The final battle with Donnie is actually a pretty drawn-out affair, involving a mini-gun and a shirtless knife fight. At the end of the fight they pull the oh-shit-he-stabbed-the-defenseless-bad-guy-but-it's-okay-because-he-only-stabbed-the-ground-next-to-his-head-in-anger trick, and all the skinheads put down their weapons down in solidarity behind Tommy. Racism cured!

According to imdb, Tommy's role was originally written for a black dude, which makes a lot of sense, but Phillip Rhee liked the script so much he decided to write it into the Best of the Best canon. It's a servicable script, but there are some moments where it gets pretty patronising. Right before the Reverend gets attacked and killed, Luther Jr. sneaks a grasshopper onto the school bus. A little girl freaks out and kills it, and when he asks her why she did it she squeals "Because I was scared!" Oh, I get it. Thanks movie. There's also a town hall scene where outraged townfolk stand up and make heartfelt speeches that clearly lay out the themes and subtext of the movie. The usual stuff, I guess.

The fights are pretty good, although they use a lot of close-ups and editing tricks. For instance, there's once scene where he leaps into the air and kicks three guys off their motorcycles before he hits the ground. Obviously that's impossible to do for real, but I would have been happy with one motorcycle-kicking if they'd done it with stuntwork instead of editing. The most notable scene is where Tommy fights some racists while dressed in a clown outfit, complete with red nose and big, floppy shoes. Most directors would have been tempted to play up the comedy and add cartoon sound effects, but Rhee plays things completely straight, with dramatic music and a deadly knife fight, with just a single gag at the end as he walks away.

Mostly though, this film just goes through the motions, and is thoroughly predictable from beginning to end. It reasonably well-made for direct-to-video and has plenty of fistfights and explosions, but it's just not that memorable. The racial themes are pretty blunt and boring; you're not likely to get much out of them unless you're still on the fence about whether racism is bad. Although Best of the Best 3 is clearly a step down from the first two films, it was fun to see Tommy Lee get a whole film to himself. Onward to Best of the Best 4: Without Warning!

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