Best of the Best (1989 film)

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Best of the Best
Best of the Best Poster.jpg
Original theatrical poster
Directed byBob Radler
Produced byPhillip Rhee
Peter Strauss
Written byPaul Levine
Story byPaul Levine
Phillip Rhee
Music byPaul Gilman
CinematographyDouglas Ryan
Edited byWilliam Hoy
The Movie Group
SVS Company, Inc.
Kuys Entertainment
Distributed byTaurus Entertainment
Release date
  • November 10, 1989 (1989-11-10)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million[1]
Box office$1.7 million[2]

Best of the Best is a 1989 American martial arts film directed by Bob Radler, and produced by Phillip Rhee, who also co-stars in the film. The film also starred Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones and Chris Penn.

The plot revolves around a team of American martial artists facing a team of South Korean martial artists in a karate tournament.[3] Several subplots pop up in the story - moral conflicts, the power of the human spirit triumphing over adversity and the meaning of life are some themes.

Set and filmed in Los Angeles, California, and Seoul, South Korea, between February 13 and April 6, 1989, Best of the Best was released on November 10, 1989.


Alexander Grady (Eric Roberts), a widower and father is chosen to represent the United States of America in an international martial arts tournament against Team Korea. Once a rising star in the martial arts world, he suffered a shoulder injury that forced him into retirement. Also chosen for the team are Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee), a skilled fighter and martial arts instructor, Travis Brickley (Chris Penn), an extremely brash fighter with a short fuse; Virgil Keller (John Dye), a devout Buddhist; and Sonny Grasso (David Agresta), a streetwise fighter from Detroit. Coached by veteran trainer Frank Couzo (James Earl Jones), he also conveys that Team America's chances of winning are virtually non-existent, as the Koreans train all year long, enjoy lucrative financial support from their nation, and have--on at least one occasion--killed a competitor in the ring. To win, they will need to be the best technically, physically, and mentally.

Training begins badly as Travis antagonizes the team, particularly Tommy. Given the pressure, the American team hires a second assistant coach, Catherine Wade (Sally Kirkland), is hired, whose more spiritual approach leads to additional conflict with Couzo's more aggressive coaching techniques. No one feels this pressure more than Tommy, knowing that his match will occur last and that he may have to make up the deficit in points; he is aware that his opponent is not only Team Korea's best fighter, Dae Han, but is also responsible for killing Tommy's brother in a similar tournament. Couzo is hoping that Tommy's desire for revenge will give him the necessary aggression to win, while Wade is more concerned that Tommy will murder Dae Han in the ring and become consumed by the guilt. Still, the team begins to bond after a bar fight and begin earning each other's respect after training in sparring and meditation.

Couzo cuts Alex when he breaks the rigid training regimen to visit his son, who had been hit by a car; later, Tommy quits after knocking out Virgil with a powerful spinning heel kick during practice. Travis and the others persuade Couzo to reinstate Alex and convince Tommy to rejoin, which he does after seeing their commitment to one another.

In the first two matches of the tournament, Virgil and Sonny are out-classed by their Korean opponents. Travis does his best to psyche up the team with his brash attitude, going point for point with his Korean counterpart, but loses in a tie-breaker brick-breaking competition. Alex dominates his match with his opponent, Sae Jin Kwon, but takes a devastating axe-kick to his shoulder which dislocates it. Instead of giving up, he implores Tommy to "pop" the shoulder back into place and resumes the fight, ultimately defeating his opponent with one arm. Finally, Tommy faces Dae Han. After a slow start, Tommy gets the upper hand and delivers a series of blows that forces Dae Han solely on the defensive (including having to resort to illegal strikes). As the match nears its end, Tommy has brought the American team within two points of outright victory, and Dae Han can barely stand. Tommy prepares to end the fight using the same spinning heel kick he used on Virgil during practice, but becomes conflicted at the last moment; Alex and Coach Wade implore him not to do it. Tommy hesitates and lets the clock run out, saving the man's life but forfeiting the overall victory. Couzo consoles Tommy afterwards, telling him, "You won that match, don't ever forget that".

At the medal ceremony, Dae Han unexpectedly approaches Tommy and praises him for his honorable act. In tears, he then apologizes for the death of Tommy's brother, and in return offers himself as a brother. Tommy accepts, and Dae Han places his medal around Tommy's neck before the two men embrace. Sae Jin Kwon then walks up to Alex and states his long-time admiration for him as a fighter, before also handing over his medal. The other members of Team Korea then follow suit, awarding their medals to their respective American opponents.



Best of the Best
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
GenreRock, Pop
LabelRelativity Records

Originally released as a vinyl record album, cassette and CD, re-released on CD in 2004.[4]

  1. Tales of Power - Jim Capaldi (3:32)
  2. Best of the Best- Stubblefield & Hall (4:12)
  3. American Hotel - Kirsten Nash (4:14)
  4. Something so Strong - Jim Capaldi (4:34)
  5. The Devil Made Me Do It - Golden Earring (3:18)
  6. Radar Love (live) - Golden Earring (4:00)
  7. Backroads - Charlie Major (4:03)
  8. Original Score Medley - Paul Gilman (4:11)
  9. Someday I'm Gonna Ride in a Cadillac - Charlie Major (3:36)


Professional critics were universally negative about the film, although it inspired several sequels and has gained a following over the years.[5][6][7][8][9] In his book Iceman: My Fighting Life, UFC champion Chuck Liddell cites Best of the Best as his personal favorite martial arts film.[10] Movie historian Leonard Maltin, on the other hand, dismissed the picture as "Yet another Rocky clone" and "An appalling waste of talent...a top-drawer cast in search of a script."


Rhee revealed in an interview with The Action Elite that he's planning on rebooting the franchise with a new cast and Rhee will produce the new film.[11][12]


  1. ^ "Best of the Best (1989)". The Wrap. Archived from the original on December 20, 2016. Retrieved December 11, 2016.
  2. ^ Best of the Best at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ Thomas, Kevin (1989-11-10). "MOVIE REVIEW Plot Defeats `Best' Karate Sequences". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  4. ^ "Best Of The Best- Soundtrack details". 2007-05-13. Retrieved 2013-05-10.
  5. ^ Thomas, Kevin (1989-11-10). "MOVIE REVIEW Plot Defeats `Best' Karate Sequences". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  6. ^ Holden, Stephen (1989-11-11). "Best of Best". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  7. ^ "Best of Best". Pop Matters. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  8. ^ "Best of Best". DVD Talk. Retrieved 2011-01-14.
  9. ^ "MOVIE REVIEW High-kicking Martial Arts Film Isn't Best". Sun Sentinel. Retrieved 2011-01-14.
  10. ^ Liddell, Chuck; Chad Millman (2008). Iceman: My Fighting Life. New York: Penguin. p. 24. ISBN 0525950567.
  11. ^ Moore, David J. (June 22, 2015). "Interview With Phillip Rhee". The Action Elite.
  12. ^ Golden, Lee (June 23, 2015). "BEST OF THE BEST Star Phillip Rhee: 'We're Going To Reboot The Whole Franchise'". Film Combat Syndicate.

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