Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Phillip Rhee

Working his way up to leading man status over almost 20 years, Korean-American martial artist Phillip Rhee (a 6th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, 3rd degree black belt in Hap Ki Do and 1st degree black belt in Kendo) and the staple of the Best of the Best franchise apparently retired at the peak of his career.

After roles of various size in films such as The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Los Angeles Streetfighter (1985), Hell Squad (1986) and Silent Assassins (1988), the latter he gained his first producer credit on, Rhee firmly established himself in 1989’s Best of the Best as Tommy Lee.

Over the next decade, Rhee was exclusively cast in the role of Tommy and even though he ultimately gained sole above-the-title hero status, his career did not go beyond 1998’s Best of the Best 4: Without Warning.

Though he was one of the creators and producers of Best of the Best and it’s more brutal Rocky 4 (Sylvester Stallone, 1985) meets Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988) sequel in 1993, Rhee played second fiddle to Eric Roberts in both before taking full control of the franchise as director and lead actor for Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back.

Made in 1995, the film was tailored as a sequel from Barry Gray’s script "No Turning Back", which was originally about a black marine returning home from the Persian Gulf; not that you could call that concept original. Rewritten to make Tommy Lee the main character, the film played like an old fashioned western.

Only arriving on screen some 17 mins into the film, Rhee didn’t seem confident as a leading actor, but perhaps that’s due to the fact that he was making his directorial debut simultaneously.

Best of the Best 3 was obviously not a big budget movie, but it has high production value in the form of a great supporting cast (R. Lee Ermey, Christopher McDonald, Gina Gershon, Dee Wallace Stone) and excellent action sequences. While he may have taken on too much responsibility, he can certainly be proud of the films successes as a hugely entertaining action film.

Rhee and his brother Simon (stunt coordinator) add neat touches to all the action scenes. When Tommy sees his sister and nephew threatened, he takes down the thugs with the help of a can of shaving foam he just purchased. When those same thugs start causing trouble at the town fair, Tommy fights them off while dressed as a clown.

Later Tommy is chased from the villain’s lair by three goons on motorcycles, Tommy effortlessly kicks all three off of their motorcycles in a single leap. But all that is just a teaser for a final, action packed 20 mins in which gunfights, explosives, missiles, shotguns and knives all have a part to play. Even the one-on-one showdown lasts more than 4 minutes. Most American-made action movies of the period were not such good value for money.

Three years later, Rhee got back in front and behind the camera for what would be the final Best of the Best installment. How much time has passed in the film world is uncertain, but Tommy is suddenly presented to us as a widow and father to a six year old and this seems incongruous considering his loner status in the last film. (It’s worth noting that the same character development later occurred in Universal Soldier: The Return (Mic Rodgers, 1999), which trumps this film for the sheer stupidity of its reanimated protagonist being able to procreate in the first place.)

While inferior to each of the previous installments, Rhee’s performance in Without Warning demonstrated a definite growth in confidence. Where Best of the Best 3 still featured the franchise trademark of more experienced actors who overshadowed the star, Without Warning was Rhee’s first and last test in really carrying an action movie by himself. Something he certainly succeeded at.

There are notable supporting players, such as Tobin Bell, but those who share the screen with Rhee have very small roles. Ernie Hudson is well cast and highly credited but Paul Gleason is miscast as a trustworthy Priest.

Deviating even further from the formula of the franchise, Without Warning finds Rhee in Don “The Dragon” Wilson territory as a single father who comes into possession of a disc (that most popular of 90s MacGuffins) that the bad guys are desperate to get their hands on. If you’ve seen Bloodfist IV: Die Trying (Paul Ziller, 1992) or Lion Strike (Rick Jacobson, 1995) you know the score.

What this means is that we have Rhee at his most confident but trapped within an extremely formulaic plot. None of the previous films win any prizes for originality but they each had unique qualities.

Without Warning has one stand-out sequence, in which Tommy stumbles into a henchmen’s training room leading to an excellent stick fighting scene in which a fencing sword comes into play.

Filmed in Los Angeles, Without Warning is more like a Roger Corman or PM Entertainment cheapie, only there are no rocket launchers or over-the-top car crash sequences. Although there is a lively chase sequence involving motorcycles, a helicopter, a van and a tanker truck. But while Rhee’s performance is confident and so is his direction, his script (which he was partly responsible for) was decidedly lacklustre.

Many have asked “whatever happened to Phillip Rhee?” and I join them in this chorus. While his career certainly peaked with Best of the Best 3, there was enough that was good about Best of the Best 4 to suggest that Rhee could have continued to direct and star in high quality fare.

Now in his 50s, it’s unlikely we’ll get to see Rhee take centre stage again, either as Tommy Lee or a new character, but he’ll always be one of the best of the best.