When it comes to Tae Kwon Do, in the 1989 film “Best of the Best,” the South Korean team, has no equals. The five members of the United States National Team have to train harder and smarter than ever, if they’re going to have a chance at victory. No one knows that better than the team’s head coach Frank Couzo, portrayed by Golden Globe and two time Emmy winner James Earl Jones (The Star Wars film franchise). For Couzo, team is everything, and unless and until his team realizes that, and believes it, they’ll be hard pressed to win anything.
Alex Grady, played by Oscar nominee Eric Roberts (Runaway Train), is the oldest member of the team. He had once been one of the best in the world, but a shoulder injury has kept him out of competition for quite some time. He’s a single father, his wife having passed away prior to the film’s storyline. He spends his days as an assembly line worker at an auto-plant, while also raising his son Walter (Edan Gross). Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) is a martial arts instructor who wants to compete. He is afraid, however, because a competition claimed the life of his older brother (David Park) when Tommy was a child. The person he is scheduled to compete against, Dae Han (Simon Rhee), is the best in the world. What troubles Tommy is not that he has to compete against the world’s best; instead, it’s the fact that Dae Han is the person responsible for his brother’s death. Tommy is conflicted over whether or not he wants to extract revenge. (As an aside: Rhee’s skills when it comes to martial arts is not merely a product of Hollywood fiction. He is a 7th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and a 3rd degree black belt in Hap Ki Do, as well as Kendo).
There are other members of the team who are involved in the competition. First there is Travis Brickley, acted by Golden Globe winner Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs). Travis is both a smart mouth and a temperamental person. Next is Virgil Keller (John Dye) who is a practicing Buddhist and seemingly the most unlikely member of the team. Lastly is Sonny Grasso (David Agresta), a tough guy from Detroit who likes his music loud. There are additional characters who are essential to the team, but are not directly involved in the competitive matches. Golden Globe winner Sally Kirkland (Anna), as Catherine Wade is one of these people. She is a trainer, but her work doesn’t focus on the physical. Instead she is there to get the team mentally prepared. Furthermore, Don Peterson (Tom Everett) is the team’s analytics person. He has information about every competition and competitor, who has ever fought for South Korea. (As an aside: Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) and Dae Han (Simon Rhee) are brothers in real life).
“Best of the Best” was released in America on November 10, 1989. The film was directed by Robert Radler (Turn It Up), and written for the screen by Paul Levine (Aurora: Operation Intercept), based on a story he co-wrote with Phillip Rhee. Additional dialogue for the film was provided by Max Strom (Shelter). The film, which is parts action, drama, sports and thriller, has a runtime of 97 minutes. As of the writing of this post “Best of the Best,” has been followed by three sequels.
I am recommending watching this film for the fight sequences, because with the exception of Jones and Roberts, the acting is not what I would consider stellar. I had heard about “Best of the Best” for many years, but had never seen it. A number of people, who I spoke to about the movie, stated that it was their favorite or one of their favorite martial arts films. When I sat down to watch the film, I was not looking for something comparable to “The Godfather” or any film of that ilk. I was simply looking for something to keep me entertained – – and that it did.