Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Challenge

John Frankenheimer | 1982 | 110 min | USA/Japan

Rick (Scott Glenn) is a down and out American boxer who makes his living as a sparring partner/human punching bag. He’s approached one day by Toshio, a Japanese man in a wheelchair and his sister, Akiko, to help them smuggle a very important sword into Japan for two thousand dollars. Having just been fired from his punching bag position for losing his temper and punching back a little too hard, he foolishly agrees to smuggle the sword.

Of course as soon as Rick lands in Japan and leaves the airport with his golf bag (where the sword is concealed amongst golf clubs), he’s thrown into a van and asked to hand over the bag. He soon finds out he’s been used as a decoy, and becomes entangled in an old family feud between two brothers, over a pair of samurai swords that have been passed on from generation to generation for centuries, called ‘The Equals’ (which was the original title of the script).

Toshio and Akiko are the son and daughter of Toru (played by the legendary, Toshiro Mifune, in one of his last roles), the elder of the two brothers, who continues to live according to ancient Japanese tradition. His brother, Yoshida, years ago stole one of the swords during the traditional passing down ceremony, and has become westernized; building a huge multinational company that has its hands in just about every thing.

After going to Toru to get the money he’s owed and suffering an embarrassing beating at the hands of one of the house’s young fighters, Rick’s offered thirteen thousand dollars by Yoshida’s men to go back and beg to be taken in as a student. The plan being that when the day comes when they trust him enough to leave him alone with the sword, he’ll steal it. He agrees, but slowly comes to respect Toru and the tradition he represents.

The Challenge is a strange mix of effective drama, some light comedy, and brutal violence that would be at home in a less respectable picture. It’s all balanced well though in the script, which was co-written by John Sayles. To add another layer to the film’s “HUH?” factor; its martial arts supervisor was a young Steven Seagal (credited as Steve Seagal).

Things get a little silly at the end during the big final showdown but it’s an incredibly fun kind of silly that doesn’t feel too out of place, and delivers enough that it’s still seems strange that Frankenheimer considers The Challenge one of his worst films. I understand that Scott Glenn using a stapler on a guy’s face in the middle of a sword fight isn’t the smoothest scene ever put to film, but it’s still pretty awesome.

This one isn’t on DVD for some reason, but it’s more than worth the effort to find a copy.

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