1989, The Movie Group/SVS Inc.

Robert Radler
Phillip Rhee
Peter E. Strauss
Phillip Rhee (story)
Paul Levine (story and screenplay)
Doug Ryan
William Hoy

Eric Roberts (Alex Grady)
Phillip Rhee (Tommy Lee)
James Earl Jones (Frank Couzo)
Sally Kirkland (Catherine Wade)
John P. Ryan (Frank Jennings)
John Dye (Virgil Keller)
David Agresta (Sonny Grasso)
Chris Penn (Travis Brickley)
Tom Everett (Don Peterson)
Simon Rhee (Dae Han Park)
James Lew (Sae Jin Kwon)
Master Ho Sik Pak (Han Cho)
Ken Nagayama (Yung Kim)
Dae Kyu Chang (Tung Sung Moon)

“A team is not a team if you don’t give a damn about one another” is the tagline for this underrated martial arts drama about five members of the United States karate team, who must endure both professional and personal obstacles to unite as they prepare for a competition with a team from Korea.

The United States team consists of Virgil Keller, a devout Buddhist; Sonny Grasso, a Detroit-based fighter who uses his Italian heritage to try to get women; Travis Brickley, the bigot of the bunch; Tommy Lee, a taekwondo instructor; and Alex Grady, a former champion who is on the verge of making a comeback after suffering a career-threatening injury years ago.

Coached by the very tough Frank Couzo with the help of spiritual coordinator Catherine Wade, the five fighters spend three months in training and throughout the course, endure major encounters not only outside of their training, but internally as well. The most connected of the team are Alex and Tommy, who practically form a brotherly-type bond as both endure personal obstacles that they may or may not be able to overcome when it is time to go to Korea for the competition. Travis plays an integral part of the plot as well. As the racist member of the bunch, he uses typical Asian stereotypes to try to tap into Tommy’s head without much success. He nearly gets everyone in trouble as well at a local bar when he is caught with someone else’s girlfriend and the fact he is a loudmouth doesn’t bode well with anyone he crosses.

Even though Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, and Sally Kirkland received top billing for this film, it’s clear that Phillip Rhee is one of the true stars of the film. The character of Tommy is perhaps the most tortured of the team members. Rhee, who also came up with the story and produced the film, gives out a great performance as Tommy happens to be likable on the outside, but has a deep feeling of anger on the inside. When he learns that his opponent will be Korea’s team captain, Dae Han Park, played by Phillip’s real-life brother Simon Rhee, he begins to have recurring nightmares when ten years ago, his brother David was killed by Dae-Han in a tournament held in Los Angeles. Tommy finds solace not only in Alex, but uses his martial arts as a way to handle the fear that he has to endure.

What helps boost the film not only in terms of the film’s dramatic element of understanding the fighters are the intense training each team endures. While the United States fighters rely on modern technology and weight training to get their bodies stronger, the Korean team resort to modern traditional methods such as practicing during the snowy winters and running in the snow as well as hitting the trees while in the snow. Aside from Simon Rhee as Dae Han, the film also features legends James Lew and Grandmaster Ho Sik-Pak as members of the Korean team with tae kwon do legend Hee Il Cho as the coach.

Most of the martial arts action takes place during the qualifiers for the team as well as the climatic tournament sequences. Simon Rhee made the stars look impressive and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Phillip helped his older brother train some of the more non-martial artists of the cast, such as Eric Roberts, Chris Penn, and John Dye. One standalone fight scene takes place at a bar in which the team takes on the likes of stuntman Kane Hodder and other stunt guys.

The tournament sequences are the highlight of the film as the Rhee brothers and film crew acknowledge the respect of tae kwon do as not only a martial art, but a sport as well. The film was made shortly after competitive tae kwon do was made into an official Olympic sport in the 1988 Seoul Games. As a matter of fact, the tournament takes place and is shot in the famous city. The finale of the film highlights a major twist that shows what kind of level makes a film of this caliber a success.

Best of the Best proved to be a hit film and Eric Roberts, Philip Rhee, and Chris Penn returned for Best of the Best 2 in 1992 with Rhee starring and directing in two more installments as Tommy Lee in 1995 and 1998, the latter also marking Rhee’s final film to date. Simon Rhee returned for an appearance in the second installment but helped little brother out as stunt coordinator and fight choreographer for all four films.

Best of the Best is perhaps one of the most underrated martial arts films to come out of the late 80’s, with its somewhat breakaway from the norm of the genre and some rousing performances from the ensemble cast.