Expendables Week #1: Eric Roberts Is the Best of the Best (1989)

Hello folks. There are only a few days left until The Expendables makes its debut on screens nationwide, and I could not be more excited. Not only does it promise to be one of the best pure balls to the wall action films since Rambo IV, but it features a great array of stars from action classics. The names on the poster say it all: Stallone, Statham, Li, Rourke, and Lundgren, but there are quite a few other action stars also making appearances. (For the record, I’m not counting wrestler Steve Austin or MMA fighter Randy Couture.) Both Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger make cameo appearances and action stalwart Terry Crews shows up as well (And if he pitches Old Spice, it could only make this movie better.), but the actor I was most happy to see on the roster was Eric Roberts, Julia’s older brother and star of the 80’s action classic Best of the Best

Roberts stars as Anthony Grady, a widower and father to a five year old, who retired from competitive Karate a few years back when he hurt his shoulder. One day he gets an invitation to join the U.S. National Karate team that will be facing off against the Korean national team in an invitational tournament. Anthony is reluctant to leave his son, but when his son encourages him to join, he agrees to take his place on the team. Joining him are Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) who is haunted by his brother’s death at the hands of Korean fighter Dae Han (Simon Rhee), bookish looking Buddhist Virgil Kelleher (John Dye), the brash cowboy hat wearing Travis Brickley (Chris Penn), and the Detroit born Italian street fighter Sonny Grasso (David Agresta). Together they must listen to the advice of Coach Couzo (James Earl Jones) and his New Agey trainer Catherine Wade (Sally Kirkland) if they want to overcome their personal struggles, come together as a team, and show the Korean team who is the Best of the Best.

I don’t think I can start off the review portion of this post without talking about the most important things first. If you love, and I mean love with all your heart and soul, a montage, then Best of the Best truly lives up to its title. With one montage every 15 minutes or so, it amazed me that they could find enough rousing songs to fill them all. Thanks to two selections from ex-Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi, “Tales of Power” and “Something So Strong”, the film was able to cover all the clipped up fighting and training with rousing song craft. Unfortunately, if you take away these montage sequences, there’s not a whole lot left of the film. There is some inner turmoil that the characters go through (Grady’s son falls and breaks his leg and Tommy Lee is freaked when he finds out he must face the man who killed his brother), but for the most part the film can be divided into three parts, training, the tournament,  and the montages that come between.

Now what brought me here today is Eric Roberts, and I have to admit that I always delight when I see him in anything. I’ve always felt he was under-rated. From his roles in Star 80 and The Pope of Greenwich Village to his more recent appearance in The Dark Knight, Roberts rarely fails to entertain me. The Best of the Best is no exception. Roberts, with a mane of long brown hair, makes a great everyman turned hero, and by the time his fight rolls around, you expect that his injured shoulder will be a problem, but when it happens, it takes nothing away from the moment because Roberts made Alexander Grady a rounded and sympathetic character. This is especially evident in Grady’s relationship with teammate Tommy Lee played by Phillip Rhee.  The two men share several deeply bromantic scenes along the way, but it strengthens both Rhee and Roberts characters in a way that the montages can’t. An interesting note about Rhee’s character is that the villainous, eyepatched Dae Han is actually played by Simon Rhee, Phillip’s brother. The rest of the cast has little to do, but they all acquit themselves well. John Dye was my personal favorite as the bookish Buddhist, but I always love to see the dearly departed Chris Penn. He had a talent for bringing something special to the smallest role, and Penn once again delivered with Travis Brickley. The only flaw in the film I felt was James Earl Jones who was both two staid for his role and did not fit the part of a martial arts coach in my mind.

Best of the Best was the first film by director Robert Radler, and his inexperience shows in the film. That being said, I think his enthusiasm shows as well. The film has an energy that catapults it from bottom of the barrel action dreck to one of the films that rode The Karate Kid’s coattails to great effect. Radler did make several good choices in the film such as not subtitling or making the Korean team characters at all, instead they are the unknown embodiments of what Grady, Lee, and the rest are up against. I have to say that there is certainly something of Rocky IV here as well with scenes of the Koreans doing crazy things to train while the Americans are having beers and starting bar fights.

Best of the Best is not the best when it comes to ‘80’s action, but when it comes to ‘80’s action films starring Eric Roberts that are about a Karate tournament, it’s up there alongside greats like Best of the Best 2. Roberts does kick some serious tail here, and all the fighting has a great feel that transmits the impact of the hits through the screen. If you’ve never seen Best of the Best, I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has a love of ‘80’s movies in general. If it’s been a while since last you’ve seen the film, it’s a great week to kick off an Expendables celebration.

On a side note, I’ve only gotten a few entries into my Two Years Too Awesome contest. Come on folks, don’t you like free stuff? Click on the ‘2’ in the sidebar to learn more about how to enter.

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  1. I love me a good training montage and, as you said, Best of the Best is filled with plenty of great ones. I always loved this film, though the sequel is my favorite of the series by far as it totally kicks things up like 20 notches!

    Way to show love to the better of the Roberts family and I too cannot wait to see him in The Expendables!

  2. I always dug Eric Roberts and he is quite good in this film because he is fully committed to the character.

    Another forgotten gem featuring Roberts in a largely comedic role is a film called AMBULANCE written and directed by Larry Cohen. You can only get it on VHS but it is definitely worth tracking down as it plays out kinda like a comedic mash-up of AFTER HOURS and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD.


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