A Movie Review, or,
How is it Possible That a Mediocre Martial Arts Movie Even Remotely Merits a Movie Review?
Briefly, this 1989 movie is about the US National Karate Team going (by invitation) to Korea to kick some ass in tae kwon do's home country.
The (Relevant) Cast
And, interestingly, Ahmad Rashad, former notable announcer and "TV personality", also former host of Real TV, appears as an announcer at the big tournament at the end. This is relevant only because he refers to an attack as an "aerial back-knuckle".
and here's your SPOILER WARNING. DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU.
We start out in a clean, well-run, all-American car factory, with sweet 80's rock music blaring in the background, because sweet 80's pop rock is, without a doubt, all-American. We meet Alexander Grady who, while he does sport an excellent mullet, is badly acted by Eric Roberts, and we know from the outset that this isn't going to be an, uh, acting tour-de-force, even though we know from the opening credits that James Earl Jones is later in on the action.
Alex is a blue collar guy and we meet some blue collar friend of his, who mentions going out and having a "beer," which is also blue collar.
Then, we more or less run around and meet the cast. Firstly we meet Tommy Lee (note the all-American first name), who runs an unspecified martial arts school for kids. And look at this, he mediates a small fight between two boys, about ten years old, that starts for no reason. He comes over and gives them a Stern Talking-To, they shake hands and smile friendly-like at one another. Someone gives Tommy a letter of some sort, and he goes, "Yeah!" Which means, little do we know, that he got accepted for a tryout for the US National Karate Team.
We meet Alex's mom and his son, and Alex gets yelled at for even wanting to join a karate team again, after a beating he took in which he got his shoulder dislocated. But Alex stoically defends himself, and we find that Eric Roberts attempts some emotion in this scene. It doesn't really work. He asks his son if he can goes, and son agrees, as long as he can keep the medal he wins. It'd be a sweet, even moving moment, if Roberts wasn't completely worthless as an actor*.
Since no one else in the cast of martial artists matters, we cut to a scene where there's a bunch of martial artists fighting, trying to prove themselves to make the team. Of course, our team of five is indomitable. We meet Travis, who is a loud country boy who doesn't really fight with any particular skill other than kicking ass. We meet Sonny Grosso, who is Italian, and Virgil Keller, who used to be Italian, but is now a Buddhist. But wait, he was kidding, he was never Italian. Ah, the humour.
After this, we meet Coach Frank Couzo, in his office. To point out that he is a coach, he wears a whistle. Some corporate fool wanders in, bickers at him for his choice of Alex Grady, due to his bunk shoulder. And James Earl Jones, who's as steadfast as the rock of Gibraltar, says to him, "Mr. Jennings, your specialty is business. Mine is coaching and training champions." Looks like we've got ourselves a hardass coach.
We quickly learn that that's the case. After our team is chosen (which is Travis, Virgil, Sonny, Alex and Tommy), we go to an office room, where Coach Hardass bestows such cooperational adages as, "A team is not a team if you don't give a damn about one another."
Before we get to the rest of the movie, let's get a few things straight. Sonny is pointless. He's devoid of any acting ability, really, and does not add to the story at all. He delivers a couple of inane one-liners that it's very difficult to even twitch a lip at. And that's it! It seems to the viewer that he probably knows nothing of martial arts. He's the major detraction in the movie. Virgil provides some comic relief and is interesting because he's apparently a Buddhist, as we clearly see from all the meditation he does. There's a scene where Travis is trying to get him to go to a bar, and says there's going to be women there. Who'll gladly display "inner and outer labia". Virgil pays little attention, until Travis gets to the door. "Travis?" he asks. "Inner and outer?" Travis nods his head and at once, meditation time is over.
And Travis is in between those two hopped up extras and the two leads on the importance scale, by process of elimination; he's the only one with a single iota of acting ability. (Based on this performance, I don't know that I'd include James Earl Jones as a decent actor.)
Anyway, like I was saying. Next, we have the all-American barfight. Our karate team goes out for one night of debauchery before they head off to kick Korean ass. The whole bar decides to fight our boys, and the whole bar loses. Actually, the bar itself loses, because people get thrown through glass, through tables, into mirrors. Coach Couzo calmly drinks from a brandy snifter as the place gets demolished, and says break it up, and the boys do.
Then we've got some training and stuff, and the thoroughly nauseating Sally Kirkland trains the team in the ways of harmony and spirituality. This is utterly unimportant to the story, and from here we'll jump to plot-moving.
Alex gets a call from a hospital saying that his son got in a car accident and is in a coma. Of course, Coach Couzo, being a tough guy, won't let him go. Alex says to him, and I quote, "Fine. I'm outta here."
Meanwhile, Tommy's coming to terms with the fact that Dae Han, his opponent for this tourney, killed his brother. He's afraid, he says, and once Alex comes back after son is confirmed okay, he says he can't fight Dae Han, and goes off for a ride on his bike. And his bike, I should add, is a racing bike which is, as we all know, what all martial artists of Asian descent ride around on. He sees some kids at a gas station, and one kid's ice cream cone falls on the ground. His brother gives him his own. Awwww. Tommy smiles, and decides he can fight the big bad guy (who is, incidentally, Philip Rhee's real-life brother.
Blah blah, everyone returns to the team and goes to Korea.
Next, we have the tournament. Sonny and Virgil get their asses kicked; Travis doesn't do too badly, coming to a tie with his opponent. There's a face-off in which a demonstration of skill and strength is the deciding factor. This is where we break concrete bricks. His opponent wins.
Alex is next. He fights for a while, and gets his shoulder dislocated. He tells them to pop his shoulder completely out and to tape it up, he can hold off his opponent for a few seconds. And he wins! The all-American blue collar guy from Anytown, USA wins, and there's crying and happiness all around.
Tommy's fight is last, and this is, remarkably, the only decent display of martial arts in the whole movie. Anything before this was well-choreographed (by Philip Rhee, mostly), but just poorly done. And of course, the lights are dimmed for this fight. Tommy gets beat up for a while, but has A Miraculous Comeback at the end. Dae Han hobbles to his feet, and the Americans are tied with the Koreans. One more point ought to give the Americans the victory, but at this point in the fight, Dae Han is basically the walking dead after a decent trouncing.
He's half-dead, and Tommy only has to give him a quick boot to win, the Americans take the gold, and all is right with the world. So, he does this foot-thing that we saw earlier, which signifies that Tommy's going to perform the super death kick from hell, and we hear comments from Alex and Couzo, saying, "No," where "no" means "Don't kill that guy!" The time counts down, second by agonizing second. The time goes to zero, and Dae Han falls over, at the end of his strength. He heads over to Couzo who says, "You won that match. Don't EVAH forget that."
Following is the heart-warming scene in which the Koreans give their medals to the Americans, led by Dae Han, who delivers bad english heart-warming speech to Tommy, basically saying he's sorry for killing his brother, his bad, but thanks for saving his life. So, what we've got here is a MORAL VICTORY, friends, and the credits freeze to a still of the Americans and Koreans celebrating their mutual wins.
My Completely Biased Take
This movie is curiously good! In all honesty, the acting isn't as bad as I've been saying. You'll see when you go rent this movie. There's very little spots of genuinely good acting, to be sure, but it doesn't take away from the simplicity and coolness of the story.
If, above, I sound like I'm being brief, whizzing through material, that's both true and untrue. The movie's a quick movie, weighing in at 97 minutes. It dispenses with hundreds of lame subplots, overtiring getting-to-know-you of characters; it dispenses with anything you'd call "deep" in a movie. Our actors are not the greatest, but they don't need to be: they get the job done. As martial artists, they're the same: they get the job done. Directing, soundtrack, story: it gets the job done. This is an excellent movie to sit down one night, watch, and enjoy.
So please, go out and rent this one. I own it. Twice. It's top-of-the-line for the straight-to-video.
It is followed by (to the best of my knowledge) two sequels, and they are both atrocious.
My completely subjective out-of-five for this video is "four".
Sources: http://www.imdb.com, my barely-legible case for the Best of the Best VHS tape.
* Eric Roberts really isn't that bad, in this movie. I guess the truth is he plays his role well. His role is one of just some guy who does cool little karate things. He's really not deplorable, abhorrent, or any of that. In fact, I saw him in an adaptation of Paul's Case, and he was okay.