Tom Jolliffe revisits Best of the Best…
We’ve all seen those trailers before. You may see them predominantly around the time that Oscar baited films begin popping up, in readiness for an Autumn and winter push for Academy recognition. A principal cast loaded with calibre. They get announced on screen. Starring Academy Award winner…, Academy Award winner…, Academy Award nominee… etc. If you look at some films historically, we’ve seen films with four or more cast members who’ve all had some form of Academy recognition in the same film. It affords the film a little gravitas, and the marketers fall upon it with great relish.
Ordinarily these films will be big studio productions. They don’t always turn out brilliantly it must be said. Occasionally these people are brought together in something where clearly, every one of them is after an easy paycheck and the studio itself is kind of lazily churning something out they are sure will sell. When you think of the atypical ‘Starring Academy Award Nominee/Winner x4’ film, you may not necessarily think of a B movie fight film from the late 80’s.
The film was Best of the Best. It’s a film with a cult fanbase. It spawned three sequels which progressively took the action into different avenues. This is a film of which fans will regularly be found to proclaim (with great gusto) ‘Pop it Tommy!’ This arrived in the middle of an era that saw Tournament fight films experiencing a huge deal of popularity thanks to Jean-Claude Van Damme. Bloodsport (followed up with Kickboxer) really re-popularised the Enter the Dragon formula. Bloodsport, in retrospect might have starred ‘academy award winner’ Forest Whitaker but this early role was long before he’d established himself as a critically lauded A-lister.
The principal cast in Best of the Best features three Academy Award nominees and one former Oscar winner. Headlining is Eric Roberts. One of cinemas great nearly men. You might call him an underachiever. He broke through in the early 80’s along with a group of electric and exciting young actors (including Mickey Rourke). He got attention pretty quickly. By the time he got his Oscar nomination in Runaway Train (which also saw a Golden Globe Nomination head his way) he’d already had two Golden Globe nominations. One for his debut in King of the Gypsies and a second a few years later for Star 80. The latter remains his best performance. The film ended up going by slightly unnoticed. A bio pic about the death of former playmate and porn actress, Dorothy Stratten. One particular reason it faltered was the subject, coming at a time where authorities were trying to push the porn industry out of the mainstream and into the back-rooms. Despite a high profile director in Bob Fosse, the film is a forgotten gem and it’s propped up by an exceptional performance from Roberts.
Best of the Best also has the voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones. His reputation speaks for itself. Unsurprisingly, in a long and varied career, Jones had procured himself an Oscar nomination, for The Great White Hope. Sally Kirkland appears in the cast. An actress who flirted with mainstream but never quite reached the A-list level. She had a moment in the sun with her Oscar nomination for Anna, a couple of years prior to doing Best of the Best. Rounding out the big swingers, appearing in a smaller role here, is Louise Fletcher who discerning audiences will recall (with bile) as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. One of cinemas great villains. She won the Oscar for that role (unsurprisingly). All this is before mentioning that the film also features Chris Penn. A fantastic actor on his day, but the award recognition that seemed to fall upon Sean Penn, always eluded him.
So we have a B pic fight film with a lot more gravitas than you would ordinarily expect from this kind of film. As such, whilst it’s not quite Bloodsport iconic, it still has a certain level of cult appeal. It’s a film B movie enthusiasts fondly remember. It didn’t do particularly well on its theatrical run but was a huge video hit. It was on video where the majority of fans probably first discovered it. The film was savaged by critics upon release, as these films tended to be. In retrospective consideration though, the sincerity behind it is more appreciated these days, as are pinches of humour here and there. The film may devolve into melodrama at times, although to an extend this is why the film has a worldwide appeal in some parts of Europe and indeed Asia where the preference in drama is a little more emotionally overt. Okay so no one was ever going to win an Oscar from an enjoyably formulaic tournament film, complete with perfunctory plot devices but what they do, they do with more believability and sincerity than you might usually find in this genre.
Ultimately where these films must succeed is in capturing the target audience in the action. Following not merely that Bloodsport formula, the film owes a lot to the Rocky mould (as indeed Bloodsport probably does). You have the pre-requisite imposing opponents, the training montages, and final face-offs replete with a cheesy 80’s soundtrack. Best of the Best is effective that’s for sure. These films have a simple recipe, but getting it right can be difficult. As many pretenders found. As hackneyed as the final moments get, or as cheesy as ice-cream falling to the ground in slow motion when a young boy witnesses his older brother dying in combat might be, Best of the Best gets its audience behind it. Several characters have their life changing epiphany along the way for good measure too.
As far as the sequels. The second film followed the first film pretty closely. Penn, Roberts and leading man Phillip Rhee (as Tommy) returned. Penn is killed off to propel the plot (And likely for producers to keep his fee down), whilst Roberts takes on a more secondary role. It’s a lot less sincere and misses the presence of people like Jones and Kirkland, but it remains a solid slice of B movie fun. The third film sees only Phillip Rhee return, and firmly take command of the franchise. Here taking on White supremacists. It’s wildly different from the previous two and a more straight up action piece but it’s great fun. The fourth isn’t quite as good but still worth watching as Rhee once again takes his fists and feet on a walkabout.
Looking back at a lot of the promotional material, I can’t help but feel the distributors missed a trick by not pushing the point of the Oscar pedigree in the cast, but perhaps that may have somewhat alienated the target audience who were there for the punching and kicking. Best of the Best remains a film that most certainly for action lovers of a certain age is looked upon with great fondness. A film for myself which was discovered as part of a friend’s older brother’s VHS collection (rammed with action spectaculars from the 80’s and early 90’s) and became essential repeat viewing. “POP IT TOMMY!”