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Retro Review: THE CHALLENGE (1982)

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THE CHALLENGE
(US - 1982)


Not a ninja movie but usually lumped in with them (the recut TV version was retitled SWORD OF THE NINJA) if it's mentioned at all, THE CHALLENGE was probably conceived more as a modern-day SHOGUN, even securing the services of the great Toshiro Mifune. It's a terrific, underrated action thriller from John Frankenheimer, who had 1960s classics like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE TRAIN, and SECONDS to his credit and would later enjoy a major resurgence (ANDERSONVILLE, RONIN) in the years before his death in 2002, but was not at a career pinnacle in 1982. His alcoholism out of control and openly drinking on set, which he said he never did previously, Frankenheimer personally bottomed out while shooting THE CHALLENGE in Japan and immediately went into rehab when he returned to the US, later admitting he had no recollection of making this film. Co-written by John Sayles, THE CHALLENGE stars Scott Glenn (a year before THE RIGHT STUFF) as a loser boxer and all-around Ugly American who gets drawn into a decades-long feud between two brothers--honorable samurai Mifune and treacherous businessman Atsuo Nakamura--when he's hired by Mifune's son to go to Japan to help transport a priceless family sword to its rightful owner. Once the sword is returned to Mifune, Glenn is ordered by Nakamura to steal it from him, but instead comes to respect the wise old man and joins him to learn the way of the samurai (also, he nails Mifune's daughter Donna Kei Benz).





There's lots of culture-clashing and some interesting character development in the initial presentation of Glenn as an obnoxious, disrespectful fuck-up, but he eventually gets his act together and learns the meaning of honor. This all leads to an incredible finale in Nakamura's massive office building with some really intense fight (gun and sword) sequences as Glenn and Mifune team up to take on Nakamura's warriors, all propelled by an outstanding Jerry Goldsmith score, culminating in Glenn delivering one of the all-time great kills. In his first headlining role following his breakout as John Travolta's nemesis in URBAN COWBOY, Glenn is quite good in a very David Carradine-like role, though it's unlikely Carradine would've followed the same zero-to-hero character arc that Glenn does here. Mifune is basically Mifune--in a word, awesome.  A smart and compelling martial arts film that's a little glossier and slightly more highbrow than its contemporaries, THE CHALLENGE kinda gotten lost in the shuffle over the last couple of decades after being in constant rotation on cable in the '80s, but its recent Blu-ray release courtesy of Kino Lorber makes this the perfect time to rediscover it.  Also with Calvin Jung, Sab Shimono, and Clyde Kusatsu, plus an early martial arts coordinator credit for one "Steve Seagal." (R, 110 mins)

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