East meets West in this classic 80’s action thriller from the director of “The Manchurian Candidate” and the first to feature martial arts choreography courtesy of Steven Seagal.
Scott Glenn stars in his first leading role as Rick Murphy, a down-on-his-luck boxer hired to sneak a valuable sword into Japan.
The legendary Toshiro Mifune is Toru Yoshida, head of the traditional martial arts samurai school in a decade’s long feud with his brother Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura) for possession of a pair of ancient swords that are a family heirloom.
Donna Kei Benz is Yoshida’s daughter Akiko and Sab Shimono plays Yoshida’s wheelchair-bound son Toshio. Calvin Jung, later to be seen in “Robocop” and “Lethal Weapon 4” is Hideo’s right hand heavy, Ando.
Retired boxer Rick Murphy is hired to smuggle an ancient Japanese sword into Japan. When Rick learns that he was the decoy, Rick agrees to help Hideo Yoshida retrieve the real sword (part of a pair known as “The Equals”) by infiltrating his brother Toru’s samurai school. However once there, Rick finds himself drawn to the school’s etiquettes and traditions leaving him torn between loyalty to his new master and breaking an agreement with Hideo that could cost him his life.
Richard Maxwell and John Sayles’ script focuses mainly on the conflicting contrasts of two worlds as illustrated in the Yoshida brothers’ actions. Toru is unshakeable in his stickler for the old ways and notions of honour whereas Hideo, a modern day corrupt businessman (who doesn’t care about honour) chooses which traditions to adhere to when it suits him.
Adding to this is Hideo’s henchman Ando, a product of post war Japan alien to his own culture who, with the line, “They’re queer for swords over here” exemplifies this cultural estrangement theme. The trap of over indulging in this is thankfully avoided and save for what seems like an unnecessary love scene, the story and action unfold at a steady pace.
At times there is played a vicious streak such as Toshio’s torture and death, and Rick buried up to his neck to see how long he endures without food or water as penance for stealing the sword. Much of the action however, mainly consists of training scenes featuring skilful displays of Aiki-Ken (bokken skills), Kyudo (Japanese archery), Iaido, and Aikido.
Rick at first stumbles in adjusting to his new life and some light relief ensues such as his reaction to the literally lively cuisine at dinner washed down with many sips of sake. Yet his skill development and spiritual realisation move the narrative along nicely, culminating in the final showdown.
The finale is an exciting if somewhat fantasised scene emphasising the superiority of the fearless samurai versus hired guns, the futility of reliance on modern weaponry over traditional instincts and of course the notion that honour and nobility trump all. This isn’t a bad thing, far from it and erstwhile Bushido enthusiasts (myself included) can revel in a climactic battle packed with lots of heavily armed security guards shot down with a bow and arrow, and felled by the sharpness of the Katana.
Toshiro Mifune shows that at 51 he was just as agile as during his Kurosawa collaborations, with masterful sword skills and athleticism whilst Scott Glenn proved himself to be a viable action hero with some equally nimble sword skills and familiar looking Aikido moves choreographed by Steven Seagal.
The anticipated sibling face-off between Toru and Hideo is fast-paced and exciting to watch thanks to sharp editing, with clean camerawork capturing all the action and some deadly looking sword-fu.
“The Challenge” is very much a film of its time, like “The Yakuza” and the television series “Shogun”, Hollywood was enamoured with the idea of the arrogant westerner traveling to Japan and learning all about honour. At times it feels like an ancient tale of bloody revenge in a modern setting but this is 80’s action at its heart with some fine performances and brilliant displays of Japanese warrior arts in all their modern day glory.
- Scott Glenn had previously trained in an assortment of martial arts including Tang Soo Do, Kali/Escrima as well as boxing and wrestling.
- Much of the filming was done on the grounds of the Shokoku-Ji Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto which has remained unchanged since it was founded in 1382.
- John Sayles also scripted the low budget sci-fi film “Battle Beyond the Stars” which was influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” featuring Toshiro Mifune.