After a seventeen-year hiatus, Best of the Best’s Phillip Rhee returns with a film geared towards the family genre, and it is quite a fun film.
At the Mid-City Community Center, a group of kids are preparing for a martial arts tournament. However, when their coach quits, community center owner Charlie seeks to find a new coach. He soon finds his coach in Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt” Lee, a former mixed martial arts champion who actually got his training as a kid at the community center. Despite the fact he is not too fond of kids, he decides to teach the kids while he is awaiting a comeback fight.
The kids each have their own issues. Wyatt suffers from an attitude problem brought on by his meager style of living. Leticia sells oranges on the streets with her father and yearns to have things a girl would have. Raymond, an overweight kid, suffers from rejection by his father. Ricky hangs out with the wrong crowd. Rasheed is a troublemaker who constantly gets into fights when he is teased for his stuttering issue. Finally, brothers Alex and Sean are the two “runts” of the group, which makes them potential easy pickings for bullies.
The top team to beat is the Beverly Hills Scorpions, run by the renowned yet very conceited martial arts master Ted Barret. When he learns Jimmy has returned to town and is coaching, Ted uses his connections to make sure that Jimmy isn’t going to get a sponsor for his team because of a grudge he has held since he and Jimmy were kids. However, Jimmy finds a sponsor with his old friend Big Mama, owner of a hot dog food truck. Now, Jimmy must prepare the team and give them the confidence they need to enter the tournament, where the winning team will take on the Scorpions in the Junior National Martial Arts Championships.
It has been a whopping seventeen years since we last saw martial arts action star and filmmaker Phillip Rhee on the screens. When he decided to take a break from acting after Best of the Best 4: Without Warning, he focused on two things: children’s programming and working as a visual effects artist. Using his love for projects geared towards the family, he made his comeback film what can be best described as the “love child of Best of the Best with The Bad News Bears.”
Rhee once again shines but this time to a different capacity. Here, he plays the mentor of the Underdog Kids, who is a combination of Coach Frank Couzo of Best of the Best and Morris Butterfield of The Bad News Bears, but without the whole alcoholic portion of the latter. As Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt” Lee, Rhee goes from being a somewhat hard-headed coach who at first doesn’t have an interest in teaching kids, but as the saying goes, “even the master learns from his students”. When it is revealed why he was forced out of mixed martial arts competition, one can see that Jimmy isn’t a totally hard-headed person and does have a bit of compassion but perhaps it is his attitude towards children that is triggered from this incident. However, the first scene in which we see Rhee beginning to have a change of heart is when he gets a sponsor, has to do a “favor” and well, he’s not only got martial arts moves, but gets some comic relief himself with some dance moves. This scene you would have to see to believe.
The film truly has a “heart” to the story, similar to that of Best of the Best. It is not just about a team and their coach preparing for a major tournament but as a famous on-screen coach once said, “a team is not a team if you don’t a damn about one another”. This applies to not only the team but their coach as well as in one such case, one of the Underdogs trying to get his father to accept him because he feels he is ashamed of him. It must be admitted that the scene where the kid asks his father if he is ashamed of him as well as a scene between Rasheed and Jimmy made this reviewer almost shed a tear as it proved to be powerfully emotional.
Another asset of the film is the amount of Hollywood veterans who make appearances in short but somewhat important roles in the film. Mireilly Taylor is great as female lead Valerie, Alex and Sean’s aunt who is wary of Jimmy at first but eventually warms up to him and even helps with the kids’ training. Tom Arnold pretty much plays well…Tom Arnold. Okay, he plays Jimmy’s agent “Geno”, who offers some ridiculous ways for Jimmy to earn some money while Jimmy is asking for a comeback fight but it is done in a way only Arnold can pull it off. Ted McGinley plays the Scorpions’ sponsor, who while his son is on said team, seems like a true businessman. Max Gail plays Charlie, the owner of the community center where the kids train who was and in some ways, still is a father figure for Jimmy. Lauren Bowles plays Wyatt’s mother, who struggles to make ends meet and it is because of her attempts to make things easy that Wyatt feels like they can’t have anything and thus, gives him the attitude problem.
The film also has cameos from some familiar names in martial arts action films. Ron Yuan plays Mark Zuko, who hosts the tournament where the winners will face the Scorpions. Finally, there are cameos from five martial arts legends playing themselves: Richard Norton, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Dan Inosanto, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, and Jun Chong.
However, it truly is clear why Rhee geared this film towards the family besides his love for children’s programming. In an age where we have the classic action heroes making comebacks and making more films today, Rhee may have felt like he was ready to introduce a new younger generation of potential action stars and let’s face it, we have kids in this film who have that potential. The Underdogs themselves have three young martial arts champions who get to strut their stuff in the film. Seeing Andrew Franklin, Aidan Considine, and Rayna Vallandingham transition from the tournament circuits to the screen is truly exciting. Having a dance background, former Disney Channel star Adam Irigoyen really picked up martial arts quick and looks pretty good when he is fighting and even Lorenz Arnell, who plays a member of the Underdogs who gets teased because of his stuttering issue looks pretty good.
Some of the actors playing the Scorpions also involve some top names in martial arts, the most famous of the bunch being perhaps Ryan Potter, who is best known for the 2011-2014 Nickelodeon show Supah Ninjas and was the voice of Hiro in the hit Disney film Big Hero 6. Potter not only is an excellent martial artist, but even showcases his acting as he doesn’t always approve and always questions his father’s ways of doing things. Another martial arts champion who transitions well from the tournament to the screen is Tyler Weaver, who plays McGinley’s son. Finally, making his film debut is a young martial artist named Sean Rhee, who when seen doing martial arts is truly one who could follow in his father’s footsteps. Yes, he is in fact, Phillip Rhee’s son.
How about the action sequences? Well, the action was a collaborative effort from stunt supervisor Simon Rhee, stunt coordinator James Lew, and martial arts choreographer Marc Canonizado. Those expecting to see Phillip Rhee in action gets the chance in basically one scene where he dispatches a gang of bullies, using both his taekwondo skills and even some grappling. A lot of the climactic fight scenes (as if we don’t know who face each other by this time) consists of a lot of martial arts “tricking”, which when done right, could look pretty good and in fact, it does look quite good here. Seeing these young talents perform their own martial arts skills is quite impressive. However, it must be said that for one fighter, a page from the 1994 football comedy Little Giants is taken and it pretty much involves flatulence and to really bring the comic element of this nature to a tee, is followed by quite a nasty cloud. Watching this particular scene with the kids can guarantee them laughing raucously. However, for the most part, the action scenes are nicely done and gives quite an unexpected twist that truly works well here.
For this reviewer, Underdog Kids is truly a well-made family-friendly film that is geared towards both adult martial arts fans as well as kids. Phillip Rhee definitely did a splendid job here in terms of his return in front of the screens as well as executing what could be a stepping stone for some of the young martial arts talents who appear in the film. If you’re expecting any hardcore martial arts stuff, you’ve got the wrong film. However, if you’re a parent and want to introduce your children to martial arts films, this is definitely one to start with because after all, this film is geared toward the family and has some great martial arts sequences in it. This is definitely one to check out.
WFG RATING: A-
A Group Hug Production. Director: Phillip Rhee. Producers: Fabienne Wen, Douglas Magillon, and Phillip Rhee. Writer: Phillip Rhee. Cinematography: Aaron Meister. Editing: Terence Their.
Cast: Phillip Rhee, Mirelly Taylor, Max Gail, Ellia English, Tom Arnold, Patrick Fabian, Adam Irigoyen, Lauren Bowles, Ryan Potter, Cade Sutton, Beau Bridges, Tonja Kahlens, Aidan Considine,
Nicholas Bechtel, Rayna Vallandingham, Andrew Franklin, Lorenz Arnell, Tyler Weaver, Ted McGinley, Sean Rhee