Martial arts are generally regarded as part of exploitation cinema, and for that reasons examples of the genre made with high budgets and respectable names behind and in front of camera are relatively rare. One of such rarities in The Challenge, 1982 film directed by famed film maker John Frankenheimer.
Protagonist, played by Scott Glenn in his first starring role, is Rick, down and out boxer in Los Angeles. One day in the gym he is approached by two Japanese – Toshio Yoshida (played by Sab Shimono) and his sister Akiko (played by Deborah Kai Benz) – and offered to help bring ancient and apparently very valuable samurai sword from USA to Japan. Faced with failing career and financial trouble, Rick quickly agrees, unaware that would be involved in decades long feud between two brothers. One is Toshio's and Akiko's father Toru (played by Toshiro Mifune), descendant of and old samurai family who runs martial arts school and sticks to the old traditions of honour and self-sacrifice. The other is Hideo (played by Atsuo Nakamura) who has built business empire by employing the army of street thugs. After being kidnapped and almost killed by Hideo's thugs, Rick is later offered huge amount of money in exchange for infiltrating Toru's school and stealing the sword. Rick agrees, but during his presence in the school he gets deeply impressed by Toru and his disciples' skills, as well as attracted to Toru, which in the end leads him to remain loyal to his new sensei.
The Challenge was inspired by the enormous success of Shogun, television miniseries that had sparked huge interest for all things Japanese in Western world. The script by famed film author John Sayles follows its plot, by featuring Western protagonist with little knowledge of Japan who only gradually accepts and appreciates its culture. Like Shogun, this film was made in Japan and featured legendary Toshiro Mifune as one of main characters. Mifune is joined by some of his prominent colleagues, while the cast also features number of Japanese Americans with most recognisable of them being character actor Cylde Kusatsu, although the spotlight is taken by Calvin Jung who plays Ando, Hideo's cynical and completely Americanised henchman. Glenn is his first starring role is mostly solid, but script does him disservice by adding some atrocious dialogue lines and not properly explaining his loyalty shifts, except by cliched scenes in which he befriends Jiro, little boy in Toru's school (played by Kenta Fukasasku, son of famous director Kinji Fukasaku who would later become successful director in his own right). Problems with script are somewhat alleviated by Frankenheimer skilfully directing dynamic action scenes, partially with a help of future film star Steven Seagal as martial skills coordinator. Frankenheimer also knows how to put locations and sets to good use, including Kyoto International Conference Center which "plays" Hideo's corporate headquarters and setting of the spectacular final showdown. Frankenheimer also enjoyed the services of famed composer Jerry Goldsmith who delivered another good music score. The Challenge, however, has some problems with the pacing, especially in the middle section, which features some overcooked attempts at humour (Rick having to eat live fish during banquet). Despite that, and the ending which looks little bit too ambiguous for the films of this type, The Challenge nevertheless delivers goods to the fans of 1980s action cinema.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
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