Today’s 73 In 73 is very important to me.
Here are 15 reasons why 1989’s ‘Best Of The Best’ is secretly one of the greatest films of the 80s and the best non-baseball sports film of all time.
1. It’s a film about martial arts made in 1989 involving a legitimate sporting competition and no on-screen deaths
I’m not knocking 80s movies – I grew up in a video store and was more or less raise by them – but in the 80s, most martial arts movies followed the plot of ‘Bad Dudes.’ The President has been kidnapped by ninjas, and somewhere there’s a bad enough dude to rescue the President. If it wasn’t that, it was about kids or animals with unreasonable karate power who fought ninjas or robots or robot ninjas or burglars or whatever.
Here’s the plot of Best of the Best: a team is formed, trained and entered in an international martial arts tournament against a tough South Korean team. They go to South Korea and compete.
Sounds boring, right? Well, it’s sports, and sports are secretly super boring. The excitement comes from the characters that make up the team, the problems they go through, a Korean team that trains by judo chopping trees and doing fist push-ups in the snow and shit and also JAMES EARL MOTHERF**KING JONES.
2. James Earl Jones Inspirational Sports Speeches that AREN’T from Field Of Dreams
Field of Dreams is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but outside of his time at the actual Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’ role in that movie is to walk around pissed off and threaten people. In Best of the Best, he gets to … uh, walk around pissed off and threaten people. I don’t know where I was going with this.
But no, James Earl Jones is the best of the Best of the Best in this. He plays the role of a coach who doesn’t take shit and isn’t afraid to give it, and he gets to come full circle with his “c’mon you guys, I got REASONS” revelations. But right at the beginning he delivers an epic A TEAM IS NOT A TEAM IF YOU DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT ONE ANOTHER speech that gives purpose to the entire damn movie, and God, he sounds great doing it. You shouldn’t even CONSIDER a sports movie great unless James Earl Jones is real talking people.
3. The hilarious story of Eric Roberts and his helpless 5-year old son Walter, who is clearly at least 10
The sorta-protagonist of Best of the Best is Alexander Grady, a martial arts prodigy who had his career cut short by a shoulder injury but is ready to give it another shot. He’s played by Eric Roberts, who you may remember as a guy who got nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, but probably remember as the guy Batman tossed off a fire escape in The Dark Knight. Anyway, he’s one of the few actors capable of ultimate 80s cheese with 100% sincerity, and him being in this and TDK means he’s been in two more good movies than his sister.
One of the best parts about Alex is that he’s putting his life on the line to compete, and that life includes taking care of his son, Walter. Walter is clearly at least 10 years old, but the script says he’s 5, then treats him like he’s 2. It’s wonderful. He can’t ride a bike, he gets tucked in at night with King Arthur stories and accidentally gets hit by a car for no reason because he’s “so small.” AND HE’S CLEARLY AT LEAST 10 YEARS OLD, YOU GUYS.
4. The also hilarious story of Tommy Lee, the best fighter in the world who lost his brother but overcomes it via ice cream
Your second protagonist of the film is Tommy Lee. No, not that one. Tommy’s an Asian-American fighter out of Fresno who makes the team thanks to his superior skills, but also harbors a DARK AND TERRIBLE SECRET. Spoiler alert: His brother was killed by the captain of the South Korean team.
Tommy is (rightfully) sketchy about going full-force in fights (because he doesn’t want to kill anybody, and totally can), and that hesitation pisses off his team and coach. He gets SUPER EMO about it and quits the team, driving away on a motorcycle to listen to some inspirational 80s sports movie ballads and contemplate fate, or whatever.
Tommy’s memory of watching his brother die involves a slow motion shot of a young Tommy dropping an ice cream cone (which symbolizes death!) He eventually rejoins the team when he stops at a gas station to get gas, sees a little boy drop HIS ice cream cone, and sees that boy’s brother let him have additional ice cream. THAT’S IT. If Tommy had seen somebody share their ice cream cone between ages 5 and 25 he wouldn’t have felt horrible about watching his brother die.
The lesson here: Always share your ice cream.
5. The also ALSO hilarious story of Travis, who wants to know if you pooped or peed
The third most important member of the U.S. team is Travis, a cowboy who’d be a great fighter if ONLY HE WEREN’T SO ANGRY, played by Chris Penn.
If you don’t know Chris Penn, he’s been an important part of TONS of awesome things. He was Nice Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs, Nicky Dimes in True Romance, Officer Pulaski in ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ and, perhaps most importantly, he was the guy with no rhythm from ‘Footloose.’
In this film he starts a bar fight, shares a bunch of racist jokes and stands by the ladies’ room to ask passing girls if they’re going “number one or number two.” He is AMERICA.
7. The jobbers
The two members of the team who’re only there to get their asses beaten and show how unstoppable the Korean team is are Sonny, an Italian guy who won’t stop mentioning that he’s Italian, and Virgil, a Buddhist who won’t stop mentioning that he’s a Buddhist. Also, he might be the blue Power Ranger.
8. The Ultimate Bar Fight Song
Remember that bar fight I mentioned? It’s accompanied by the perfect song: ‘The Devil Made Me Do It’ by Golden Earring. Yes, the ‘Radar Love’ guys.
9. A terrifying group of Koreans who want to kill those people via organized martial arts
I mentioned it before (and you can catch a glimpse of them in the title image up top), but the South Korean team gets built up so much in Best of the Best you start to think they’ll kill poor Virgil if they look at him wrong. Every time we see them they’re either getting hit with sticks, shirtlessly jogging through snowfields … I don’t know, if they’d included a scene of them doing Tae Kwan Do underwater and causing wave explosions I wouldn’t have second guessed it.
They don’t really get personalities, but they could convincingly chop Eric Roberts in half at the hip, and they have cool names that’re difficult for Ahmad Rashad to pronounce.
(If I haven’t mentioned it yet, reason 9b. is “Ahmad Rashad plays himself in the film and calls the tournament.)
10. Chris Penn tests his might
As you probably couldn’t have totally guessed, Virgil and Sonny tank their fights, leaving the Americans way behind on points. They do better when Travis gets in there and starts America’ing all over the place, and his bout ends in a tie.
The tiebreaker, which Bloodsport fans may know as “playing tricks with bricks,” is a board breaking competition, aka the “test your might” thing from ‘Mortal Kombat.’ It’s exciting, and ends with a beautifully read Chris Penn line.
You left us too soon, Chris.
11. Alexander Grady’s fight is an amazing sports movie unto itself
The United States goes into the final two bouts of the competition way behind on points, so it’s up to THE PROTAGONISTS~ to bring it home. Eric Roberts is up first, ponytail high, and he prefaces each of his rounds with an awesome action movie quip. “I’m gonna kick your ass” and “I’m gonna knock your head off” both make appearances. I also would’ve accepted “go home and Korea to your mother!”
Alex is motivated by the sudden appearance of his mom and SWEET INFANT BABY WALTER in the crowd, a good-will gesture from his coach for the whole “kick Alex off the team for wanting to take a leave of absence when his newborn helpless baby son gets hit by a car” thing from earlier in the movie. He starts kicking the Korean guy’s ass/head off, but WAIT JUST A MINUTE, the Korean takes a cheap shot with an axe kick to the shoulder and puts Alex down, possibly for good.
We join this amazing scene in progress.
If you don’t get goosebumps when Alex COUNTERS and SCORES! you don’t have arms. Also, remember “Bop It,” that toy that told you what to do to it, and you had to follow the instructions in order? Sort of a multitasking Simon? Yeah, I was that kid yelling BOP IT TOMMY BOP IT I SAID BOP IT GODDAMMIT AUGHHH at my friends to no response.
12. The ending to Tommy vs. Dae Han, and the tournament
Alex wins his fight but the American team is still far behind, so it’s up to Tommy to ridiculously outscore the man who killed his brother and terrifies him into anxiety complexes/motorcycle ice cream rides, or knock him out.
This is absolutely one of my favorite movie fights ever. Dae Han treats him like a joke at first and takes advantage of Tommy’s fear, but Tommy starts coming back and wrecking him … and eventually Dae Han is battered and bloody and EYEPATCHLESS and struggling to breathe and remain upright at the same time.
Tommy realizes that all he’s got to do is unleash one final kick … the Americans will win the tournament, he’ll kill a helpless Dae Han with brutal force and avenge his brother’s death.
13. The Americans are the bad guys. And guess what? They don’t win.
In a moment that never, ever seems to happen in movies or television these days, Tommy DOESN’T strike Dae Han down … he listens to his coach and his friends and does the right thing, at great personal cost. He’s not afraid anymore, he’s CHOOSING to spare Dae Han’s life. It’s the right thing to do.
During the tournament the Americans get booed out of the building. Virgil and Sonny are helpless and Travis is a boisterous dork. They start to come around during the Alex fight because he’s fighting hurt and his opponent is taking cheap shots, and finally decide the Americans are okay dudes when Tommy doesn’t murder a guy in front of them. The American team we saw formed and trained, the team we followed from inception to execution, through every struggle … doesn’t win. The South Korean team wins on points.
14. … but they do win, and oh God, the tears
Jump to the 2:45 mark.
I don’t know if you could call this a “twist,” but it’s such an incredible way to end the film.
15. And finally, what every 80s movie needs: a great 80s theme
‘Best Of The Best’ by Stubberfield & Hall:
This is in the “reception” section of the ‘Best of the Best’ Wikipedia page:
Critics were universally negative about the film. In his book Iceman: My Fighting Life, UFC champion Chuck Liddell cites Best of the Best as his personal favorite martial arts film.
I think that says everything you need to know.
Score: Five out of five dropped ice creams.