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Best of the Best (1989 film)

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Best of the Best
Original theatrical poster
Directed byBob Radler
Written byPaul Levine
Story byPhillip Rhee
Paul Levine
Produced byPhillip Rhee
Peter E. Strauss
CinematographyDouglas Ryan
Edited byWilliam Hoy
Music byPaul Gilman
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 (US)[2]

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

The plot revolves around a team of American martial artists facing a team of South Korean martial artists in a martial arts 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.

The film has spawned three sequels: Best of the Best II (1993), Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back (1995), and Best of the Best 4: Without Warning (1998). Phillip Rhee portrays Tommy Lee in all four films, produced all of them, directed the third and fourth films, and co-wrote the first and fourth films.


Alexander Grady, an auto plant welder and a widowed father from Portland, Oregon 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 three years prior, which forced him into retirement. Also chosen for the team are Tommy Lee, a highly skilled martial arts instructor from Fresno, California; Travis Brickley, an extremely brash fighter with a short fuse from Miami, Florida; Virgil Keller, a devout Buddhist from Providence, Rhode Island; and Sonny Grasso, a streetwise fighter from Detroit, Michigan. Despite being coached by veteran trainer Frank Couzo; their chances of winning are virtually non-existent, as the Koreans train all year long, enjoy full 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.

As training begins, the team struggles to bond as Travis antagonizes them. Given the pressure, the American team hires a second assistant coach, Catherine Wade, whose spiritual approach to training clashes with Couzo's more rigorous coaching techniques. Tommy is disturbed when his opponent is revealed to be Dae Han Park, Team Korea's best fighter and veteran martial artist who was responsible for killing Tommy's brother David Lee in a similar tournament. Couzo hopes that Tommy's desire for revenge will give him the necessary aggression to win, while Wade is more concerned about Tommy's mental state. With time and training, the team begins to bond and to earn each other's respect.

Couzo cuts Alex from the team 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 side kick during practice. Conflicted by his desire for revenge, Tommy confesses to Alex his fear of fighting Dae Han, but Alex strongly urges him to do the right thing and face his brother's killer. Travis and the others persuade Couzo to reinstate Alex, and Tommy eventually rejoins the team after a change of heart.

In the first two matches of the tournament, Sonny and Virgil are out-classed by their Korean opponents Yung Kim and Han Cho. Travis does his best to psyche up the team with his brash attitude, going point for point with his Korean counterpart Tung Sung Moon, but gets beaten 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 and winning the match. 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. As the match nears its end, Tommy has brought the American team within two points of victory, and Dae Han can barely stand. Tommy prepares to finish the fight, but knowing that Dae Han would not survive the attack, his coaches and teammates dissuade him. 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. He tearfully 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] On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 26 out of 100, based on 7 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[10] In his book Iceman: My Fighting Life, UFC champion Chuck Liddell cites Best of the Best as his personal favorite martial arts film.[11] 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."[12]


Rhee revealed in a 2015 interview with The Action Elite that he's planning on rebooting the franchise with a new cast and Rhee will produce the new film.[13][14]


  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". 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". 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. Archived from the original on 2012-06-16. Retrieved 2011-01-14.
  10. ^ "Best of the Best (1989) reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved April 4, 2020.
  11. ^ Liddell, Chuck; Chad Millman (2008). Iceman: My Fighting Life. New York: Penguin. p. 24. ISBN 978-0525950561.
  12. ^ Maltin's TV, Movie, & Video Guide
  13. ^ Moore, David J. (June 22, 2015). "Interview With Phillip Rhee". The Action Elite. Archived from the original on October 19, 2017. Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  14. ^ 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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