I'm not certain why it took me so long to watch THE CHALLENGE, other than that I don't recall it ever being readily available to me. It's not on DVD yet, for some reason; it must be just about the only major John Frankenheimer movie left un-DVDed. Before I cancelled my Showtime channels (because they kept airing the same forty movies over and over), I recorded a cropped print of THE CHALLENGE on DVD-R. Showtime often shows LBXed movies, but only if the aspect ratio 1.85:1 or less. Anything wider, like THE CHALLENGE at 2.35:1, it doesn't. And THE CHALLENGE, with all of its Japanese location photography and its action sequences, needs to be seen in its full glory.
Inspired by a thread over at Mobius Home Video Forum about Frankenheimer's GRAND PRIX (now on DVD) that turned into a discussion of our favorite Frankenheimer films, I popped THE CHALLENGE into the Cyberhome this afternoon. Frankenheimer is one of the best directors of thrillers Hollywood has ever known. THE CHALLENGE is a decent enough picture, but it doesn't rank near his best like SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, FRENCH CONNECTION II (probably the best film ever with a "II" in its title) and BLACK SUNDAY.
John Sayles, who was then writing (very good) schlock pictures like ALLIGATOR and PIRANHA, co-scripted this thriller that could have used less chatting and more slicing. THE CHALLENGE really would have been better if those involved had taken it less seriously. I mean, the plot is absurd: Scott Glenn (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) plays a skinny American boxer who is hired to transport an antique sword to Kyoto. It’s one of a matched set that has been the object of a blood feud between brothers Toru (Toshiro Mifune!) and Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura) for almost forty years. Each sibling has one sword, wants the other, and is willing to kill each other to get it. Glenn finds himself in the middle as a martial arts student in Toru’s temple. After just a few days, he’s suddenly a badass American ninja able to wipe out most of Hideo’s private army.
Jerry Goldsmith’s awesome score really holds this movie together, as do Mifune’s registered performance and the Japanese locations. There are some terrific action sequences too, particularly the climax in which Glenn and Mifune storm the brother's gigantic office building and wipe out his force using machine guns and bigass swords. At the time of THE CHALLENGE's 1982 release, there was a bit of a flap concerning its gore, and this movie sees not one but two skull-slicings. It doesn't look like much by today's gore standards, nor does it look any worse than what Tom Savini and others were doing in slasher movies of the period. But Toshiro Mifune wasn't in those pictures. Frankenheimer cut a shorter version for television called SWORD OF THE NINJA that eliminates the gore and nudity, which must be no fun to watch at all.
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to see Ninja Scott Glenn staple some dude's forehead, THE CHALLENGE is for you.