Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Challenge

When THE CHALLENGE was released in 1982, I was quite obsessed with martial arts epics.  Not just Bruce Lee movies but also the more obscure kind of things that have been shown on the El Ray network.  While I didn't own any of the associated props, I did mess around with my (even more obsessed) friend Paul's Chinese throwing stars and (rope and chain) nunchucks.  I regret to report that I did not take any karate or ju jitsu lessons, never got my black belt.  And why didn't that bratty thirteen year old catch this movie at the Cross County 8 or wherever it was playing?  I think it came and went too soon, lost among many big releases of the time.  And it just didn't seem distinguished enough.

Regarding the talent involved, I was wrong.  Recently, I actually sought the film out for its pedigree.  John Frankenheimer directed, Scott Glenn had the lead, and John Sayles co-wrote the script.   Surely this mix would produce something beyond the typically low grade actioner? While I'm not exactly singing its praises, I wasn't disappointed.   Sayles wrote several scripts for B-fare during this time period, movies like ALLIGATOR and THE HOWLING, which were several notches above the usual manure.  THE CHALLENGE essentially is a B-movie, albeit one that is just as fascinated with East/West culture clash as with swordplay that may or may not conclude with someone's head being split vertically into two halves.

Glenn plays a slow witted L.A. boxer named Rick who is approached by a wheelchair bound Japanese man named Toshio and his sister.  Rick is to smuggle a rare sword to Japan for a few grand.  As his life is apparently without many prospects, he almost immediately accepts, without voicing too many suspicions.  This proves to be regrettable as soon after landing Rick is ambushed by the Toshio's brother who appropriates the sword and informs the American that it is in fact, a fake.  Rather than kill Rick, he gives him the option of infiltrating his uncle's (Yoshida) martial arts academy, where the real sword remains separated from its twin, owned by his father, Hideo.  The opening scene of the movie sets the stage with a backstory dating back to 1945.

THE CHALLENGE spends much time in Yoshida's school as Rick slowly becomes indoctrinated to the ways of Bushido.  He will sample their cuisine, consisting of often still alive seafood, and be tested by remaining buried up to his neck in the sand outside for five days.  None other than Toshiro Mifune plays Yoshida-san, a sensei given to meditation and old school weaponry.  His presence certainly elevates this movie from the usual muck of ninja dramas, and he is fun to watch.  The drama of the two brothers' battle to reunite the swords is to honor a centuries old tradition, no matter how much arterial spray must be shed in the process.  Hideo represents Western excess with his million dollar deals and arsenal of machine gun toting minions.  Rick will be tested by both sides for his loyalty and allegiance.

Sounds standard, and certainly is for the most part.  The screenplay, co-written with Sayles by Richard Maxwell and Marc Norman, covers most of the bases of the genre.  For good measure, a subplot involving Rick's mentoring of a little boy at the academy is woven in, though it feels gratuitous, as does an obligatory sex scene. Frankenheimer, who made an interesting assortment of films during his career, frames everything competently.  The dialogue in this movie is a bit sharper than in say, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, likely due to Sayles.  I found it interesting that the evil cousin (son of Hideo) talks like an American, complete with vulgarisms like "hide the salami", certainly in line with the modernist culture to which he's been exposed.  I wonder also if it was Sayles' idea to stage the final battle in an office, where in addition to the precious swords a stapler becomes a key weapon.
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