The Challenge (1982) / Action-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, some sexuality, and language
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Scott Glenn, Toshiro Mifune, Donna Kei Benz, Atsuo Nakamura, Calvin Jung
Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: Richard Maxwell, John Sayles
Review published October 16, 2002
Most people who view THE CHALLENGE nowadays are likely doing so to see the work of one of their favorite talents and not because they are expecting a good film. Fans of John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) and Toshiro Mifune (THE SEVEN SAMURAI, RASHOMON, YOJIMBO) are likely looking for hidden gems by the time they decide to get around to picking this one up. Those who are curious for some early work by Scott Glenn (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE RIGHT STUFF) and screenwriter John Sayles (EIGHT MEN OUT, LONE STAR) might also give this one a shot for seeing them do films we aren't accustomed to seeing them associated with. Even Steven Seagal fans who are desperate completists will want to catch this film for his first film work, although it's behind the scenes as the martial arts coordinator.
Glenn stars as Rick, an American boxer who has struggled to get his career back on track, and is so desperate for money he readily accepts an offer by a Japanese businessman to fly to Japan to retrieve a valuable sword. Rick goes in blindly, and stumbles right into the middle of a bloody feud between two brothers, who both have one of a pair of swords known as the Equals. These swords belonged to their father, and both want to have the complete set at any cost, including murdering each other. The brothers are quite different, with Toru (Mifune) following the ways of a Samurai instructor, while his brother is a ruthless businessman that has everything he wants...except the sword. Rick is captured by the bad guys working for the businessman and is forced to enroll as a student in Toru's school in order to get close to the sword and swipe it. However, Rick fins the life appealing and respect for Toru, in addition to having the hots for his daughter, and is conflicted between stealing the sword to save his own skin and a sense of loyalty to a noble man.
Although I can't quite recommend the film because, quite frankly, it's pretty bad, it isn't without merits. Sayles screenplay, which he worked on with Richard Maxwell (THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW,) has quite a bit of interesting material, and there are some intriguing characters along the way. Mifune is the quintessential film Samurai and his presence here is as formidable as always, although the film is far from utilizing his talents fully. There are also some interesting viewpoints on Japanese culture and good use of locales. This actually could have been a much better movie in the right hands.
However, these hands are all wrong, and although I respect John Frankenheimer as a director, he really had no business directing a swordfight flick. The fighting scenes are choppy and handled without finesse, and looks mostly like play-fighting than the actual thing. It's also one of the most violent films of its era, with lots of torture scenes, decapitations, and thousands of rounds of bullets riddled into walls and people. It is one brutal and bloody film.
Glenn's attempt to play the action hero is admirable, and he truly gives his all in scenes where he has to ingest a live fish or bug, and he obviously was comfortable handing the dangerous aspects of the fighting. Sad to say, he is also one of the reasons the film is so uneven, as his inability to show effective rage weakens the intensity, and his reactions during many scenes lack motivation or interest. He also isn't very good at the choreography, but this isn't all his fault as the direction makes it look all the more amateurish. He also sports one of the worst haircuts in movie history.
THE CHALLENGE will have some appeal to those who like very violent action and the most forgiving of Mifune's fans. However, too much bad direction, terrible acting, and ridiculous fighting ultimately makes this one of the cheesier films in the careers of many involved who have a lot more talent than is evidenced here. Keeping yourself awake and interested will prove to be the real challenge.
©2002 Vince Leo