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MOVIE REVIEW : Throwing the Dice With Death Underneath Las Vegas

March 08, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Best of the Best 2" (citywide), a dynamite martial arts movie, asks us to believe that there could exist in Las Vegas, beneath a Fremont Street disco, right smack across the street from the landmark Golden Horseshoe Casino, a private club called the Coliseum, where patrons bet on gladiator matches in which the only rule is that there are no rules. The select few get to witness fights that end only in the death of one of the participants.

OK, it's a stretch, but one that writers Max Strom and John Allen Nelson and adroit director Robert Radler make work very effectively on the level of comic book action-fantasy. In the far less impressive 1989 "Best of the Best" Eric Roberts, Phillip Rhee and Christopher Penn played members of the U.S. Karate Team taking on the world champion South Koreans in a brutal Tae Kwan Do match. They're now running a martial arts school in Las Vegas, where Penn goes up against the monolith (gigantic, Schwarzenegger-accented Ralph Moeller) who is the owner and star attraction of the Coliseum. Roberts and Rhee are determined to avenge his death. There's an ironic commentary on Vegas and the values it represents in the film's inevitable climax in which Moeller and Rhee emerge as the Siegfried and Roy of hand-to-hand combat.

Roberts, hot-headed in contrast to the more calmly determined Rhee, are likable guys, and Roberts has a bright 11-year-old son (Edan Gross), sure to grow up to be a martial arts champ himself, and a down-to-earth girlfriend (Meg Foster), a local TV sportscaster. Martial arts movies generally reflect a cultural diversity lacking in more prestigious productions, and "Best of the Best 2" (rated R for strong martial arts violence) is no exception.

There are solid portrayals by Betty Carvalho as Rhee's American Indian foster grandmother and from Sonny Landham as her hard-drinking son, one of three men who took on Moeller and live to tell about it. However, it's Wayne Newton, now into a second career as a character comedian, as the Coliseum's gleefully villainous emcee who threatens to walk off with the show.

'Best of the Best 2' Eric Roberts: Alex Grady Phillip Rhee: Tommy Lee Christopher Penn: Travis Bickley Edan Gross: Walter Grady

A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Movie Group production. Director Robert Radler. Producers Peter E. Strauss, Phillip Rhee. Executive producers Frank Giustra, Peter E. Strauss. Screenplay by Max Strom, John Allen Nelson. Cinematographer Fred Tammes. Editor Bert Lovitt. Costumes Mona May. Music David Michael Frank. Production design Gary Frutkoff. Art director Shari Hangar. Set designer Bill Rea. Set decorator Anna Rita Raineri. Sound Kim Ornitz. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for strong martial arts violence).

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