The first Best of the Best was shat out by God and hit his chosen people like a brown stinky stone tablet. It foretold a future of action cinema where we wouldn’t need the riot-generator main man who could kick a country in half, but instead could field a team of bureaucratically obedient warrior-nerds who would deliver our sense of revenge for us. For as ragingly homoerotic and thick-skulled as it was, it marked the end of 80s (or “Butch) action film, and heralded the dawn of the 90s (or “Bitch”) action film. Think it through; by the time 1993 rolled around, how many necks were snapped without some expansive personal exploration montage? Even Steven “He Who Seeks The Killer of Bobby Lupo” Seagal went from drugs-n-cake masterpiece Under Siege to a lecture on electric fucking cars in On Deadly Ground. Let us also forget for a moment the inexorable adventures of Best of the Best 3 and the surprisingly titled Best of the Best 4; Tommy Lee, one of the only truly Asian-American characters who was actually allowed to be a non-queer adult male speaking at normal volume, simply became so much of a badass that he was able to Turkish-crescent-kick racism right out of people. What matters is that at the turning point between Butch and Bitch, 1993, a torch was passed. A long, veiny torch.
What I’m saying is, Best of the Best 2 is the first awkward teenage grope of action cinema. That is to say, brilliant and thrilling, awkward and wordy, sweaty, thrusting, mad, and basically preoccupied with Wayne Newton’s ageing testicular cameltoe. Our heroes Alex Grady (Eric Roberts), Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee) and Travis Brickley (Chris Penn) return from South Korea having heroically lost the tournament but gained a brother. HE WAS… A .. GOOD.. FIGHTER. Well, he wasn’t good enough to stay alive during a fucking padded sparring session, so Dae Han, you’re in. What do you do when your team returns for a moral victory? You set up shop with a bizarre and vaguely defined fight school in Las Vegas, of course.
Luckily for us, Las Vegas is home to a brutal and fanciful underground fight club, the Coliseum, hosted by a post-Danke Schoen Wayne Newton and owned by a pre-The Viking Sagas (has it really been 13 years?) Ralph Moeller. Newton needs no introduction and he acts here exactly as we know him: the tireless overseer of human depravity, jaded, listless and cruel. Playing the baby-oil producing region and tremendously heterosexual vilian Brakus, Moeller has always had the distant sorrow of a man who knows he is too physically big to be properly famous. Frankly, he owns this film from frame to frame. I could pretend to some high-larious irony where I laugh at the German beefcake at the centre of the Coliseum’s absurd hierarchical fighting system, but there is plenty to laugh at here without taking anything away from the courageous and dreamy Ralph Moeller (starring in the upcoming summer smash, CarPirates!).
The relationship between Newton’s Weldon and Moeller’s Brakus is, to me, the pinnacle of action cinema’s inability to talk about the male body. Brakus is beyond maleness the way a Turducken is beyond a chicken burrito. Weldon manages him and the business of the Coliseum sort of a leashed maniac, despite us seeing Brakus’s depth and intelligence in just about every shot or scene setting up the first third of the film. He is made into a monster not by being different, but just by being a Butch in a Bitch world. That is his tragedy. Weldon is a massive, terrible Bitch. Their business is managing the braying elite of the audience; row after row of hooting trophy wives, impotent men who were a decade out from their first Viagra prescription, and mini Patrick Batemans.
I dare readers to scour film history for a more perfect and vile audience than the blood-stained suits in Best of the Best 2; shot after shot in every fight fills us with dread, hatred and class contempt. Not the gum-chewing yahoos surrounding the pool in AWOL/Lionheart/Wrong Bet who watched Jean Claude elbow someone in the face once, but had it cut together seven times. Not even the fearful gi-clad drones on the island of Mr. Han (“-man, you come straight out of a comic book.”) Not even the wonderfully inappropriately bewildered cronies of Shang Tsung (“YOU ARE NECKS!”) watching Liu Kang’s first fight in the (first and only) Mortal Kombat movie. No. In the town that best represents the salty excesses of American wealth, right at the turning point between the peaks of then and the troughs of now, these people are the best chalk circle in which glistening tweakers have ever fake-fought. These people are always in underlit shadow, always up to no good, and always being prompted by Weldon to remember that “There is one one rule; there are no rules.” They are referenced explicitly as bankers and investors – not just rich, but Finance sector rich. People whose entire existence is ephemeral. What pisses me off about Fight Club, was that it ended up being the Republican right of reply to an entire era of balls-out action cinema like this that got away with making a real political point, dumb as it was, without then holding your hand – literally – to tell you it would all be okay. No conservative impulse here; the poor extract revenge, sweet and juicy. Revenge for what?
Well, for these people, Brakus kills Travis Brickley. Chris Penn, as many of our readers will know, followed the essential rule laid out in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, that if you’re going to go in a cosmically sad and tragic way, be sure to leave about a decade of morbid foreshadowing of that death in your films. So it is with no surprise that I point out that two sentences on Penn’s Wikipedia page contain the following phrases about his film roles; “heavy-set, drug dealing” and “heavy-set, couch potato drug dealing high school janitor.” You may want to laugh at Chris Penn’s death, but before you do, be aware of two things. One, he managed to pretend he knew karate, in two separate films. Two, he had to live everyday knowing that his brother was Sean Penn. Travis Brickley’s forlorn face as he realizes he is so crap at karate that Brakus is snapping his neck as a form of aesthetic critique can now be seen as the most sage precursor to Penn’s fat, tragic death. We won’t include an image of the deceased here, because like many indigenous peoples we understand that mechanical reproductions of the dead can disturb their spirits, but for those of you planning a “heavy-set, drug dealing” marathon will want to pay close attention to the epic and grim poetry happening in Ralph Moeller’s armpit. Who should be watching from the rafters at this point, but Alex Grady’s drama school Walter. Walter is precisely the kind of child that a constantly crying divorcee with a ponytail would bring up, so we can’t blame him. That name again: Walter.
At this point, the film is pretty much perfect. We have two Bitch heroes, who, having lost the only Butch of the original US National Karate TEEEEAMMMM, must now defeat the last of the wild Butch, managed by a real Bitch, to protect one of the Bitches’ progeny Bitch.
The ordering of the first confrontation scene is brilliant: The boys, finding Brickle’s body in the river, get hooped up on goofballs and head up to interrupt Brakus’s improbably massive dinner in a what appears to be the Vegas version of a mead hall. Grady, already crying before he’s been punched, asks if Brakus killed Travis, and gets the response “Easily!” before getting tossed aside and probably putting out his dud shoulder in the process. Brakus turns to Tommy and punctuates with “Care to join him?.” Then, in what I consider to be the definitive breaking point between two distinct action cinema traditions, Tommy (No!) Lee snaps Brakus in the face, sending him flying into a mirror straight out of Snow White, cutting his face, his beautiful face. Ever the narcissist, he wakes from his slumber, and goes from kicked head to kicked head from here on in. The heroes leave with menacing swerves and winks, Weldon’s thugs vow to hunt them down and kill them, setting up the requisite montage-tragedy-montage-triumph. But from this point, not a single frame is wasted.
The sheer greatness of what follows, and the way it overshadows the rest of the film has required of me to give you no foreshadowing. It simply must be said as it happens. The boys escape to very Asian Tommy’s adoptive Very Native Indian family in a desert shack, where the drunk and sweaty Sonny Landham, playing Tommy’s politically-correct Butch half-brother, bears of the scars of a headfirst collision with Brakus. The film, already loaded with tragic figures, gives us at this crucial moment in his life, Sonny “we need a genocide against the ragheads” Landham. Even as a teenager watching Best of the Best 2 in the cinema, knowing the Predator connection, prior to any real gossip website culture, you knew that Sonny was a man who has swallowed a bomb and given a detonator to, according to his very own personal website, a “mentally ill wife and a liberal guided federal government”. Before he would face off against “the fascist women’s abuse groups of Kentucky”, he would have to deal with the scars of fighting the Aryan juggernaut. His character James is part Sagat from Street Fighter, part the ‘gots any change’ guy from Weird Al’s Vidiot from UHF. Landham really is one of America’s enduring images of male paranoia. Just how unstable does a person have to be to become known as ‘the crazy one’ on the set of Predator?
Somehow, this lump of bullshit and bitterness has to train up two hairless jockeys to make a triumphant return to the Coliseum and see off the big fellah. All of Landham comes out in James, the way all of Newton comes out in Weldon. The tragedies which were implicitly fictional in 1993 – Penn (by being dead), Newton (by being the same), Eric Roberts (by being Eric Roberts), and finally Landham (by being Republican/crazy) – are by now complete, real, and beautiful. The experience of watching action cinema punch itself in the balls is nowhere more pronounced, nowhere more farcical.
There’s a whole twenty minutes of greatness that follows the James introductory vomit that requires little explanation. A bunch of sun-baked training montage occurs, some family tenderness, we grow a little, we laugh a little, we fight with sticks. I think Meg Foster is there at this point, but I can never remember where she is in films because her dead, dead eyes are a portal to the land of wind and ghosts. Weldon’s armed thugs rock up before the training is complete (of course), and shoot up the place, killing James by shooting a wig apparently representing the back of his head, but not before he slow-motion stabs a dude in the chest. There’s been a lot of action so far, but really, the last fifteen minutes is a ramp of stupidity. Dae Han is called in to help out Grady mix it up while Tommy has to kick some people around in the Coliseum before he can get to fight Brakus himself, who is basically nursing his scar 24/7. Pretty much everybody cops it in the face and neck for a good while, the audience demands more and more blood, Tommy’s kicks are getting more elaborate and edited together more ferociously. As the floor breaks into chaos, Brakus and Tommy go at it with iron poles.
We don’t want to spoil the ending too much, but I’ll just hint at the fact that Tommy kills Brakus in an eerie echo of Travis, and then shuts down the Coliseum. Okay, we did want to spoil the ending, but that’s to make a point:
Best of the Best 2 is the Citizen Kane of cinema. The narrative spokes open up to reveal a portrait of American self-obsession that goes considerably further than something like Fear and Loathing ever managed to risk. If you think that’s a throwaway sentiment, watch it again with the benefit of hindsight. Maleness dies in the arms of another man, time and again, in the sweaty underbelly of Vegas. Showmen live forever, queer Euro juggernauts preen for our amusement, and the new figures rising out of the ashes are basically dressed up community-minded primary school teachers. Race is forgotten, but failure to acclimatize to it is punishable by death. This film, in attempting to map a shift away from greed and muscle culture to make a quick buck on the new emerging aesthetic, ended up also serving historical critique of the Clinton era’s systemic corruption and family court paranoia. WACO would go down between the close of principal photography and release. On the one hand, what use would America have for the charismatic leader? But then, who wants some dudes in wigs to come and kill your Sonny Landham half-brother?
At the real centre of it all is the lynch mob, with their betting stubs and shit champagne. The sneering, screaming crowd of white West Coast powerdressers had learned nothing from the LA riots, happy to unite in the half-light of the fighting ring and place their bets on other’s flesh. If you don’t remember them being the focus of the film, then you probably think the film is about middle-aged men dealing with getting older. No, even the Romans knew that the ring of battle criticized the audience. Thank God those blood-thirsty vampire caricatures on the edge of the drama never actually ended up running our financial system.
Okay, that’s a lie. At the centre of it all is Ralph Moeller. Acting so perfect, they had to replace his head with a jelly mold for the last shot of the last fight, in an autocritique that precurses Hot Shots: Part Deux (geniflect here, folks) by a couple of months. We love you, RM, you insane man-mountain.