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MOVIE REVIEW : Plot Defeats ‘Best’ Karate Sequences

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Best of the Best” (citywide) is a by-the-numbers martial-arts movie graced by several celebrated actors marking time between more rewarding assignments and crowned by an appallingly brutal Tae Kwan Do competition. There’s nothing here except for karate fanatics.

The title refers to five young men recruited for the U.S. Karate Team by its coach (James Earl Jones) to take on the world champion South Korean team. The U.S. athletes are played by Eric Roberts, Phillip Rhee (who wrote the film’s story with screenwriter Paul Levine), Christopher Penn, John Dye and David Agresta, and none of their characters are interesting or individual enough to warrant description.

After predictable friction, they shape up under the fire-breathing Jones and trainer Sally Kirkland, an expert on Eastern philosophies who is to sharpen their concentration. Kirkland has her work cut out for her as we see flashes of just how rugged the training of the South Koreans is. (Why are the Americans eating junk food? Why are they frequenting a roadhouse, except as a pretext for them to show their stuff in a barroom brawl?)

The film’s familiar names, which include Louise Fletcher as Roberts’ concerned mother, all acquit themselves as well as doggedly trite material and Bob Radler’s uninspired direction permit. Cast as a karate champ making a comeback three years after suffering a shoulder injury, Roberts works up an impassioned determination that helps breathe some life into the film. Kirkland has never looked so attractive on the screen, but even this canniest, most distinctive of actresses cannot help but draw unintended laughter when she’s required to exclaim to Roberts, after his shoulder is severely damaged a second time and he’s floundering about in bloody, unspeakable agony, “Put your mind somewhere else! There is no pain!”

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Considering its brutality, “Best of the Best’s” PG-13 rating seems lenient.

‘BEST OF THE BEST’

A Movie Group presentation in association with SVS Films. Executive producers Michael Holzman, Frank Giustra. Producers Phillip Rhee, Peter E. Strauss. Line producer Marlon Staggs. Director Bob Radler. Screenplay Paul Levine; story Rhee & Levine. Camera Doug Ryan. Music Paul Gilman. Production designer Kim Rees. Associate producer Deborah Scott. Film editor William D. Hoy. With Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Phillip Rhee, Christopher Penn, John Dye, David Agresta, Tom Everett, Louise Fletcher, John P. Ryan, Edan Gross, Cal Bartlett.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

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MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).


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