What I Was Expecting / What I Knew Going In
I know that the Best of the Best series involves martial arts. My understanding is that the first movie was about a tournament of some sort, which may or may not have involved undercover cops who were trying to investigate / break apart a criminal scheme. I assume the sequels are all about the circle of good guy friends from the tournament and how they help each other out through some other misadventures with organized crime and/or new fighting tournaments.
My guess is that Best of the Best 4 is going to be like The Karate Kid III. The winner of the tournament from the first movie is pressured into competing again by the villain for poorly-explained reasons, and it's made personal this time because his family has been kidnapped.
The Plot Summary
Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) is a martial artist who trains cops in close-combat, hand-to-hand tactics. He's at odds with Detective Gresko (Ernie Hudson), a tough cop who apparently hates all forms of martial arts for reasons unknown. I guess maybe his dad was killed by a kung fu master or something? Anyway, Gresko makes a big point about how guns are the only truly useful form of force and they have a weird argument in front of one of Tommy's classes.
Meanwhile, there's a gang of Russian thieves led by Tobin Bell who have just stolen a stack of paper from the US Mint, which, combined with plates and other counterfeiting stuff they already have, will allow them to print genuine currency on demand. They might get away with their scheme, too, if not for the fact that they have a mole in their midst - one of the thieves is secretly collecting data to hand over to the District Attorney and bring an end to Tobin Bell's reign.
As luck would have it, she's the daughter of a convenience store clerk who runs a shop that Tommy regularly frequents. One fateful day, Tommy goes to the shop to get some baking supplies while the shop's daughter / informant is running away from the Russian gangsters with a disc of incriminating information. She runs to her father for help, and covertly passes the disc into Tommy's pocket without him knowing. When the gangsters get inside the shop, they cross paths with Tommy and he beats the crap out of them. They run away, but not before shooting the clerk's daughter to death.
Tobin Bell is upset not only that his goons failed to recover the disc, but also that they were beaten up. So he sends out more goons to find out who Tommy is. They track him down to his house, where he beats them up again. Tommy takes his daughter to a friendly priest played against type by Paul Gleason, who agrees to hide her while he figures out what's going on.
Tommy tries to get more information about the gang from a cop friend, but his friend turns out to be corrupt - he's working with the Russians. They get into a fight and Tommy inadvertently kills him, which leads Detective Gresko and the rest of the police on a manhunt to arrest Tommy and bring him to justice.
There are a few run-ins with the police, but Tommy evades capture by both the law and the gang long enough to figure out their scheme. He also gains empathy from one of the lady gangsters who seems less than thrilled about the prospect of orphaning Tommy's daughter.
Right around that time is when the gangsters manage to subdue Tommy and bring him to Tobin Bell's mansion for interrogation, which leads to one of the better scenes in the movie. Tommy is hung upside-down by his ankles and beaten until he reveals the disc's location. He gives a fake address to distract them, then swings back and forth until he can grab a glass tumbler from a nearby table. He cracks it in his hand and uses the shards to cut himself free, then covertly sneaks out of the room...
...and into an enormous training hall where there's six highly-trained fighters practicing martial arts. It's such a jarring transition. It's like somebody walking through a door from their bedroom and entering a grocery store. But it does lead to another halfway-decent fight sequence, so why not.
After beating up those goons, Tommy steals a motorcycle and escapes the mansion. The gangsters chase him using a combination of cars, a truck, and a helicopter, which all eventually explode in a tunnel because Tommy cannot be caught.
That's when the gangsters track down Tommy's daughter and kidnap her. They offer an exchange: her life for the disc. Tommy readily agrees and goes to make the exchange, but - surprise! - the gangsters were being dishonest. They're actually just going to kill Tommy and his kid because they can't have any witnesses. Tobin Bell leaves a couple of thugs to do the dirty work while announcing that he is going to the airport.
Fortunately, Tommy tugs at the heartstrings of that one lady gangster from earlier, and she suddenly grows a conscience and decides to switch sides. She and the other gangster present shoot each other to death, and Tommy is free again. He tells the priest to take his daughter to a different safe house (you know, the safe one?) and then hightails it out of there so he can track down Tobin Bell and clear his name.
While Tommy is en route to the airport, Detective Gresko pieces together some other evidence and realizes that the corrupt cop Tommy killed earlier was, in fact, corrupt. He gets to the airport just as Tommy arrives, and they both work together to fight the bad guys.
Unfortunately, just as they think they've saved the day, Tobin Bell's private jet starts to take off. So Tommy grabs a bomb - by the way, did I mention he has a bomb? The gangsters were going to set it off in the church where his daughter was hidden. - and chucks it into the jet just before it can take off, which kills Tobin Bell and destroys all the evidence against him.
But that's okay, because Gresko likes Tommy now. They shake hands and Tommy goes home to bake his daughter a birthday cake.
What I Liked
It's dumb, fun action. There's not a single moment of nuance in the film, but that's okay because the action scenes you get to see are all well done and it knows how to keep outdoing itself.
If Best of the Best 4 was just a series of good martial arts scenes - and forgive me for continually using the generic description of "martial arts," but I can't visually tell the difference between karate, kung fu, haikido, or any of the rest - I'd still have said the movie's action scenes were great. But what really takes it over the top and makes them great is the creativity behind them.
Virtually any scene in the movie is an exercise in innovation. Tommy doesn't just beat people up; he uses his environment to his advantage and incorporates it. His scenes aren't quite as creative as something from a Jackie Chan movie, but it's in the same vein, and I appreciate that. More importantly, that innovation comes into play in the non-martial arts scenes, too. The high point, for me, was Ernie Hudson's gun fight at the airport. He uses a revolver to shoot three dudes to death, but each one dies in a very special way - for example, he shoots some glass next to one of them so the shards go flying in his face, and then shoots him in the chest, or he empties some of his bullets and pretends he's out of ammo in order to trick one of the other guys into coming out of hiding.
None of these things are realistic, mind you, but that's not the point. They found something new and interesting to put on the screen, and that's worth watching.
What I Didn't Like
Needless to say, the acting is not terrific. Ernie Hudson and Tobin Bell do fine, but most of the cast is weak. It's not a major problem when you're watching Tommy beat people do death, but it is a problem whenever we're supposed to be watching characters relate to each other. The movie spends a fair amount of time showing Tommy trying to be a good father, including a recurring bit about him trying to bake a cake.
The biggest problem, then, is that they tried to bring that much depth to the characters outside of the action scenes. This isn't the type of movie that needs that level of characterization. All you have to do is show Tommy dropping his daughter off at school and saying something like, "Wow, she's growing up so fast. I love my kid." If you don't have the right acting or writing chops, then anything beyond that is going to stand out as a particularly bad scene. The good news is that there's not a ton of character scenes, so even though the parts that do exist are bad, you get through them quickly.
One other complaint I have is that the police are a dropped thread for most of the movie. Sure, Detective Gresko comes back in the end to help with that final shootout, and sure, there's an action scene where some cops are hunting Tommy, but outside of that, they're pretty much a non-entity. If you're going to take the time to set up a plot twist where Tommy is framed for murdering a cop, shouldn't you run with that? There should've been a lot more tension where Tommy has to sneak past some officers to get from point A to point B, or maybe a sequence where they arrest him and he has to escape custody.
Instead, it's like the police just totally forgot about him. Or maybe they just had better things to do.
Would I Recommend It?
Yes. There's enough spirit in the action scenes to keep this interesting throughout. Apparently I've been missing out on the Best of the Best movies for years - I've got some catching up to do.
What Do I Think the Prequels Were About
I guess the first one could still be about a fighting tournament since there's nothing in this movie that would contradict that. So here's how they connect the dots to get to "dude on the sidelines gets drawn into Russian mafia hijinks."
Part 1: Tommy is best friends with Detective John Hammer, a sarcastic cop who suspects the Chinese mafia is running a human trafficking ring out of a borderline-legitimate boxing club, where they are using a martial arts tournament as a front for their nefarious activities. John convinces Tommy to pose as a competitor so he can go undercover and figure out the specific details of their scheme, but soon he finds himself trapped in a world of crime and betrayal. Tommy saves the day with high kicks.
Part 2: John and Tommy's actions from the first movie are well-known by law enforcement everywhere, and they are recruited by the FBI to help dig deeper into the exploits of the Chinese mafia from Part 1. Tommy is brought on board in an advisory role at first to help train a new undercover agent who will join a new tournament held in, oh, let's say Vietnam, but after they all get there, they find out somebody on the inside has leaked their plans and the agent is killed. John and Tommy find themselves stranded overseas and surrounded by thugs and possible double agents. Tommy saves the day with high kicks.
Part 3: Originally intended as the conclusion of the Best of the Best trilogy, this one details Tommy's adventures back in the US after the new head of the mafia from Parts 1 and 2 tries to wreak vengeance upon him. The mafia's goons kill John, and Tommy, in a quest motivated by equal parts revenge and self-defense, has to seek out his nemesis and kill him with high kicks. He then moves to San Francisco to start a new, quiet life.
My Pitch for Another One
It's probably not feasible now, but could they do one where Ernie Hudson saves the day with high kicks?