Kino Lorber unearths a gem
I don’t know where The Challenge has been all my life.
Released in 1982 from director John Frankenheimer (Ronin, The Manchurian Candidate), co-written by John Sayles, starring Scott Glenn and the legendary Toshirô Mifune, and featuring a score from Jerry Goldsmith, The Challenge has nothing if not pedigree. And yet, I’d consider it something of a lost film. As a martial arts cinema fan and a consumer of samurai films and western action pictures for decades now, I’ve not personally had the opportunity to see the film until now, but I’ve also almost never heard it discussed or referenced in my cinematic circles. Here’s hoping the Kino Lorber release of this Blu-ray will change that; and I know I’ll now be singing the praises of The Challenge for as long as we both shall live.
While it has enormous pedigree, I can’t in all honesty argue that the film deals in originality. The early 1980s were a prime time for white guy characters to head to the “exotic” East to learn martial arts and kick ass. The Yakuza (also one of my very favorite movies of all time) did it with tough guy leading man Robert Mitchum as early as 1974, connecting him with equally tough guy Ken Takakura under Sydney Pollack’s direction. (The Yakuza and The Challenge also share a cinematographer in Kôzô Okazaki). Also in 1982 you had Franco Nero getting trained as a ninja in Enter The Ninja. And soon after that you’ve got Karate Kids and American Ninjas jumping out of the woodwork in a full on genre trope craze! Film historians Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, featured in the audio commentary for The Challenge on this Blu-ray release, point out that many American audiences didn’t have access to the classic samurai cinema and kung fu films coming out of Asia in the 1950s-1970s, so often it took a western production bringing cast and crew to Asia to expose westerners to stars such as Takakura or Mifune, even if they had to share the spotlight with some white guy as a consequence. We’ve come to understand profoundly, by the year of our Lord 2023, that representation matters, and that all benefit when stories aren’t simply about a white savior taking the best of another culture and using it to win the battle. That said, I absolutely adore The Challenge in spite of its “white guy karate” roots.
Scott Glenn, a relative unknown at the time who has since spent a career working as one of our finest character actors for decades, plays slovenly boxer Rick, who’s got a soft spot for plucky kids but is otherwise all hard edges. He’s got no idea what he’s in for when Akiko (Donna Kei Benz) and Toshio (Sab Shimono) offer him a business proposition. They’ll pay him handsomely to smuggle an ancient sword into Japan. He’s perfect because he’s a complete unknown, they reason. Unfortunately for all involved, the sword is one of a hallowed pair, known as The Equals, which are the subject of hot pursuit by Akiko and Toshio’s clan, headed by the traditional and honorable Yoshida (Mifune), as well as the high tech corporate clan headed up by the ruthless and powerful Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura). The Equals represent no less than the eternal honor of one clan and the only thing left in the world that another clan hasn’t yet conquered. Heads will roll in the pursuit of The Equals as brother battles brother for the fulfillment of destiny.
Many things make The Challenge a truly exceptional genre gem. I actually love Rick’s 1970s holdover character arc in which he really starts out pretty irredeemable. The guy is an unlikeable bastard. He’s got no real plan for his life, he’s just in it for the money, and he’ll betray anyone and everyone on a whim. Richard Maxwell and John Sayles’ script really allows Rick to flail and flounder in a fairly fleshed out way before he comes to understand on a more profound level what it means to act with honor and be trustworthy. Rick remains bull headed and thoroughly American throughout, but that ultimately creates the unpredictable variable Yoshida needs. The clincher with The Challenge is the final act, in which it explodes into a full on modern era action film and Yoshida and Rick storm the incredible corporate compound of Hideo. The full weight of Toshirô Mifune’s legendary status (maybe the most famous Japanese actor of all time) is brought to bear as Yoshida morphs into ninja infiltrator and just uses every trick in the book to lay waste to an army of corporate goon foot soldiers. He tries to go it alone but Rick shows up with a machine gun and let me tell you, a firefight ensues. Under Frankenheimer’s confident direction, The Challenge steps on the gas so masterfully I’m unsure how the film isn’t more highly regarded or strongly remembered as a tough guy cinema undiscovered masterpiece.
With a sweeping score from Jerry Goldsmith, a cracking script from John Sayles, rich direction by John Frankenheimer, and a late stage dad-action performance by actual living legend Toshirô Mifune, The Challenge sells itself on paper alone. The fact that the film itself rises to the occasion of all that talent and delivers excitement and character sends it straight into the stratosphere as one of my new favorite movies I’ll be recommending to action fans for the rest of my days.
Kino Lorber are the kings at this kind of release by now. Put out the film in a scan that looks great (here you’ve still got plenty of film grain and character going on, but the picture looks marvelous), get some highly knowledgeable historians or geeks to record an insightful commentary track (Mitchell and Thompson here establish great rapport and demonstrate their bona fides), and slap a few trailers on the disc and call it a day. There aren’t many bells and whistles here beyond that, but that suits the film just fine. I’d be singing a different tune without that commentary track, but with that one feature I do feel a company like Kino Lorber proves they wanted to include a meaningful love letter to the film that deepens a potential fan’s appreciation without breaking the bank on a documentary or behind the scenes feature or anything like that.
The Challenge, as released here on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, should be a thrilling addition to any action cinephile’s physical media collection. I am certain this was only my first of many future viewings.
And I’m Out.
The Challenge hits Blu-ray on 10/31/2023 from Kino Lorber.