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Best of the Best 4:
Without Warning
(1998)
 

Director: Phillip Rhea                 
Cast:
Phillip Rhea, Ernie Hudson, Tobin Ben, Chris Lemmon


You have to admire Phillip Rhea. Not only is he one of the few Asian-American actors to have some prominence with audiences, he's also one of the few Asian-American film directors. It's also amazing that he's worked up to this level in only several years. He started out by running his own martial arts studio, moved into bit parts in movies like Silent Assassins, and now top billed in a movie that not only he directed, but also wrote and produced. Very admirable achievements, so it's a real shame that this movie, Best of the Best 4: Without Warning is a real letdown. And it's also surprising, because Rhea's previous movie, Best of the Best 3, was very good. Well-directed, with slick action sequences and hateful villains, it was a solid made-for-video effort. Here, Rhea seems to have forgotten what made Best of the Best 3 so good, and relies here on a familiar plotline and stock characters.

Phillip Rhea plays "Tommy Lee", the name of the character he played in the three previous Best of the Best movies. The Tommy Lee character in this movie (as well as the previous entry) doesn't seem to be the same Tommy Lee character of the previous movies, mainly because here Tommy Lee has a daughter from some relationship with a woman not mentioned in the previous movies. Unbeknownst to him while he's training L.A. police cadets in martial arts and planning a birthday cake for his daughter's birthday (a mawkish attempt to give his characters a "soft, tender side", I guess), Russian mobsters in the city execute an elaborate plan to steal a truckload of official U.S. currency paper. This involves several motorcyclists all driving the same kind of motorbike while wearing the same kind of riding clothes, and bringing in a helicopter to pull up and away a truck trailer of the paper. Didn't it occur to them that seeing a group of motorcyclists all looking the same would strike in the memories of witnesses they pass along the way to their target? Or that it would be extremely hard for a helicopter carrying such a large and heavy load to evade the eye of pursuing police? Anyway, the plan somehow works, and the mobsters start to print out counterfeit money with the use of an official U.S. Currency CD-ROM that was obtained in a fashion that's never explained.

Shortly after printing commences, a female member of the gang smuggles out the CD to hand it over to the District Attorney. Pursued by her former fellow gang members, she flees into her father's corner store where Tommy is shopping, and slips the CD in Tommy's pocket before she's killed and Tommy must defend himself. Here the movie commits its first major flaw; the fight scenes are filmed in slow motion. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes both skilled direction and fight choreography that works with the direction. Though Rhea shows adequate direction in this movie with dialogue, he's lost the skills he had with directing action sequences in Best of the Best 3. The martial arts choreography isn't that special, and is flatly directed. Added with the slow motion, we wait impatiently for this fight sequence, and subsequent fight sequences to end. The action sequences without fighting aren't much better. The beginning sequence, and a later sequence involving a tanker truck in a tunnel, have the stuff to be showstoppers. However, under Rhea's direction, they somehow lack the zip that should be easy even for an amateur director to exploit. It doesn't help that both scenes suffer from editing so poor that we don't see key shots, and we have to make assumptions on what happened from what we've seen when the sequences end.

Not only is Rhea's direction disappointing, but his script contains some very tired clichés. For example, two key people he works with at the police station are an asshole detective (played by Ernie Hudson) and his sympathetic best friend. And rumors fly that some dirty cops assisted with the currency paper theft, so guess who's working with the mobsters? You're right - you could be a screenwriter! (On second thought, if it means that you'd write a script like this, don't bother.) And of course, it means a scene when Tommy wrestles with the guilty part, and he accidentally kills the person. And of course, that means that Tommy must go on the run from L.A.'s finest, despite the fact that the cops, finding the bodies of members of the currency gang  looking for the CD in Tommy's house from earlier, could put two and two together and realize Tommy was innocent. If not, Tommy could easily show the CD to the F.B.I. or the media. The movie would end there, but at least we would be spared more clichéd scenes coming from this fugitive formula. More to the point: why do you think Tommy has a daughter here? That's right - so she'll be captured by the bad guys, who will negotiate a "trade" with Tommy and....

How about the rest of the movie? The remainder is mostly a few interesting asides either hooked with standard conventions or made absolutely goofy. The snarling chief villain has an interesting torture technique by hitting golf balls at the tied-up victim, but also is depicted as making his henchmen literally cower at his feet and beg for mercy. The other fight sequences occasionally have a moment of interest (one fighter attacks Tommy with a fork!), but then go to the dependable material like a group of fighters attacking Tommy one at a time. The highlight of the movie is a hallucination sequence (using computer graphics), which provokes hoots of laughter when the butterflies start fluttering around. But this is an action movie where the viewers almost start to look forward to the sequences between the action sequences. Rhea has made a good-looking movie, but one where he seems he'd be more comfortable if all the characters just sat down together and talked about the problems at hand. During the end credits, producer Joseph Merhi from P.M. Entertainment (creator of nifty made-for-video actioners) gets a thank you. Now I don't know what Merhi contributed to this movie, but it couldn't have been much. Because if Merhi or his partner Richard Pepin had been actively involved in this picture, the movie might still not be good but there would have at least been a more original script and more creative action sequences. If Rhea wants help from Merhi for his next directing assignment, the best thing Merhi could do would be to give him some videos of his company's best efforts.

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See also: Mission Of Justice, Best Of The Best 4, Angel Of Fury

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