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Saturday, April 13, 2013

RED NINJA: THE MOVIE 3 Film Collection (1967)



How cool would it have been to grow up in a country and culture where they actually made decent and fun live-action kid's shows where the heroes were ninjas and it was explicitly stated up front that the heroes killed their enemies? That's just what Japanese kids got when Toei's KAMEN NO NINJA AKAKAGE ("Akakage, the Masked Ninja") debuted, and its over-the-top and often anachronistic content went over big with the audience. And while us round-eyes were no strangers to crazy Japanese live-action superhero fare — thanks to daily after school airings of ULTRAMAN, JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT, SPACE GIANTS, and SPECTREMAN — Akakage's show never made it to the States, presumably because of its (mild) sword-related violence and the occasional gruesome deaths of its villains. (A nasty immolation springs to mind.) Too bad, because its creator, manga legend Mitsteru Yokoyama, already had a massive fan following in the States thanks to GIGANTOR (though that American iteration did not credit him as its creator) and capitalizing on the popularity of that animated giant robot cult favorite might have gotten some American distributor's attention (though the show would have definitely required some cuts here and there for violence).

Yuzaburo Sakaguchi as stylish ninja Akakage.

Yeah, the stuff the Japanese found suitable for children would never have flown here in its uncut form and that's a shame because Akakage — whose name translates as "Red Shadow" — is a hero very much cut from the same wholesome cloth as our own homegrown Lone Ranger (complete with mask that barely obscures his features yet somehow allows him not to instantly be recognized). He's dutiful, extremely capable, kind, loyal to his friends and the good guy feudal lords who employ  his services, and he rocks a bitchin' hairdo and stylish red scarf, so he's a perfect role model for impressionable kiddies. Plus, he kicks truckloads of ass!

A typical day at work for Akakage, and he isn't even impressed with himself.

Aided by his partners, cheery veteran ninja Shirokage ("White Shadow," played by Fuyukichi Maki) and kid ninja Aokage ("Blue Shadow," played by Yoshinobu Kaneko, kid brother of fellow child actor  Mitsunobu Kaneko of JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT renown), Akakage fearlessly takes on all manner of weirdo cults, sorcerers, assassins, thieves, and even giant monsters, with tons of mayhem ensuing in the process, all in steadfast service to keep Japan safe and free. And while the series may not have aired in the U.S., a number of theatrical films were cobbled together from multi-episode arcs of the show and dubbed for release in English-speaking countries. I have no accurate information when that would have occurred but by the sound of some of the familiar actors voicing the characters, voice actors I recognize from scores of Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks that played theatrically and on TV in the U.S. from roughly the mid-1970's through the early 1980's, I'd guess they were released international around 1980 through perhaps 1982. That would have been the perfect time in which to capitalize on the public's fascination with ninjas in the wake of hit low-budget movies like the American-made ENTER THE NINJA and REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Those films particularly captured the imaginations of kids who were too young to get in to see the R-rated thrills contained therein, so the movies made from the old Toei ninja kiddie show was just the thing to scratch that itch. Renaming Aokage as "Watari" in an attempt to cash-in on the name recognition of the character played by Kaneko in the very popular 1966 kid's fantasy film WATARI THE NINJA BOY — a film I'm not sure got much release outside of Japan, though it did play in Italy — and naming at least two of the films after Watari, the movies were unleashed upon an international audience and only made it to American video shelves three years ago. Being a fan of Japanese superhero shows and also being familiar with the image of Akakage after years of seeing him in magazines and items bearing his likeness at conventions (though I did not then know his name), I picked up the DVD on a whim because it cost less than ten bucks and listed itself as containing three movies. A bargain, right?

Well, released under the title RED NINJA, the DVD is a two-sided collection that allows American viewers our first good look at Akakage and his pals, and I have to report that it's a pretty mixed bag. The material's TV origins are readily apparent and I don't see that aspect being a problem for those of us of a certain age who were raised on this kind of program, but modern audiences may be put off by the perceived cheapness that was part and parcel with live-action Japanese superhero shows of its era. Also, the episodic nature of the strung-together serialized installment can cause the narrative to just go on and on and on, which can lead to tedium in spite of there being a lot of action. And when viewed in a concentrated dose, Akakage's adventures come off like one brain-dead action set-piece after another, while the already minimal and kiddie-simplistic plots become more or less beside the point.

As for the characters, I really, really liked Akakage and would be willing to see the rest of this series in its original form. His partners, the elder Shirokage and the tweener Aokage, form with Akakage a potentially interesting "three ages of the ninja" dynamic, but that aspect is not really explored, save for Shirokage occasionally teasing or chiding Aokage for being an undisciplined kid (he doesn't really mean it). Shirokage's a lot of fun, being uncharacteristically cheerful for an  elder master of over-the-top ninjutsu, and his signature move is to whip out a huge kite that he and Aokage often ride into the sky to give battle against ridiculous airborne foes. Aokage, as expected for a show of its vintage, is another in the very long line of incredibly annoying child characters in Japanese fare. It's definitely a cultural thing (or at least it used to be) and it's particularly grating to the sensibilities of most American fans of this genre. Aokage, while a capable ninja warrior and spy, is often portrayed doing broadly-cutesy and "funny" things, sometimes in fast-motion accented with "wacky" music, and those antics bring the narratives to a dead halt. While the series was a wild, over-the-top melange of superhero adventure stories, ninja and samurai tropes, giant monsters, and quest/mission tales, the forced humor just does not fit in with the rest of the ingredients.

When taken at face value for what they are, Akaage's adventures can be acceptable cheesy fun, but I recommend breaking each film up into twenty-minute segments and watching them in such increments over the course of a few days rather than in one sitting. That way they don't become tedious and you won't be subjected to Aokage's buffoonery in saturation doses.

But the one thing the potential buyer of this set needs to know is that while it bills itself as containing three movies, that's not exactly the case. Side A of the sole disc contains NINJASCOPE: THE MAGIC WORLD OF NINJAS, which introduces us to Akakage and his teammates, while Side B features WATARI THE CONQUEROR and WATARI AND THE FANTASTIKS. The snag here is that the latter two are exactly the same movie, with the only difference being that they have different titles. My theory on this is that perhaps that film went out to different territories for theatrical release under different titles and the issuers of this DVD set didn't bother to note that they were the same movie. Either that or the company knew what was up and didn't care, figuring that the cheap price of the item would mitigate the dishonesty. Whatever the case may be, if you buy it, you only get two movies. And of the films on the disc, I'd say the dual-titled film on Side B is the more entertaining one, though NINJASCOPE does include a giant fire-breathing toad monster that's about a notch or two better than most of the creatures found in one of the era's Daiei Gamera series. Smoke a few bonghits and kick back a few beers, and they're an okay way to kill some time.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

EVIL DEAD (2013)

When the original THE EVIL DEAD came out back in 1981, it was lauded as an original and innovative alternative to the era's seemingly endless and mostly fucking awful assembly line slasher flicks, and it remains a landmark in the annals of 1980's horror films. It put both director Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell on the map as cult figures and was followed by the delirious EVIL DEAD II (1987) —which perfectly walked the fine line between sheer terror and outright hilarity to end up as one of the best sequels ever made (I think it's easily the best of its particular series) — and ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992), which formed the end of what is now known as The EVIL DEAD Trilogy. I have to admit that I'm the rare horror fan who is not a fan of the original or of the much-beloved ARMY OF DARKNESS, though I do appreciate the original for being something different at a time when different was exactly what was need, so I approached the remake with no particular attachment to or great love for the 1981 version. If anything, I was hoping for a remake almost as good as the superb (though extremely nasty) 2010 take on I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. I saw the remake with a dear friend whom I've known since high school and he's a huge fan of the original; he saw it when he was about sixteen or seventeen, back when HBO was kind of still a new thing and a novelty, while he was alone and house sitting for a mutual friend's parents. He watched the original at night in a house he was unfamiliar with and didn't even know where some of the light switches were, so the stage was set for a young lad to have the living shit scared out of him. To this day he freely admits that it terrified him in a particularly primal way.

The new version follows the basic template that was set back in 1981, with a group of young twenty-somethings going to a cabin deep in the middle of nowhere and finding a dark tome via which unseen and incredibly evil forces are unleashed to wreak appalling havoc. The chief differences between the old and new iterations of the story involve a passage from the evil book now actively being read by one of group rather than the demonic force being called up by playing a recording of a recitation of one of the spells, and the reason for the crew being present in the creepy shack in the middle of nowhere being shifted from spring break to it being chosen as the site where heroin addict Mia (Jane Levy) intends to go cold turkey and have some of her friends and estranged older brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), around for support (plus Grandpa, the family pooch). David left home years earlier, leaving his sister behind to care for their demented mother, who ended her days in a mental institution — the dealing with of which apparently set Mia on the path of hard narcotics — with his desertion royally pissing of their friends, registered nurse Olivia (the dark and lovely Jessica Lewis, whom you may remember from CLOVERFIELD) and school teacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), who had to handle Mia during her last attempt at abrupt sobriety. That previous situation not only nearly resulted in Mia's death by overdose — in point of fact, she actually was dead but eventually revived by defibrillator — it also added fuel to the fire of the group's reunion due to David's absence during that near-fatal O.D.

So what we have here is a bad situation made immeasurably worse when the crew heads into the cabin's basement in search of the source of a foul stench and discover the revolting evidence of some sort of dark and horrifying witchcraft ritual (which is seen before the titles). It's never a good idea to enter the basement of a remote cabin in the woods — as we have seen many, many times previous, and as was quite pointedly commented upon for the ages in last years brilliant THE CABIN IN THE WOODS — and it's especially poor judgment to retrieve something that's been sealed in an industrial trash bag and subsequently tightly wrapped in barbed wire. So of course egghead Eric snags said taboo object, opens it, and finds an ancient book haphazardly bound in what appears to be human skin, with pages scrawled with an arcane alphabet hand-written in blood. Loaded with fucked-up illustrations and hand-scribed notes in English that in no uncertain terms warn the reader not to read the book or speak any of its passages aloud, this is the kind of shit that you or I would take one look at and immediately put as much distance between ourselves and it as fast as humanly possible. But, as this is after all a horror movie, over-educated Eric of course does exactly what the notes explicitly warn him not to do, and in no time the withdrawal being suffered by Mia is compounded with a serious dose of full-on, foul-mouthed, murderous demonic possession.

Kids, if you find something like this securely wrapped up in a garbage bag and barbed wire at the site of what was obviously some kind of ultra-evil ritual, complete with the putrefying remains of animals suspended from the ceiling...

...do NOT read aloud from the fucking thing like this fucking idiot did! Round up your friends and get the fuck out of there immediately!!!

From that moment forward, no one is safe and and the sanity and fortitude of all will be pushed to the brink and beyond.

As remakes from the current spate of such efforts go, EVIL DEAD is entertaining enough but it does have some problems. First and foremost, it's just not that scary, despite it being as serious as a heart attack when compared to the original's twistedly humorous approach. Sure, the possessed Mia is creepy as all get-out but the film's suspense is minimal and the narrative relies on gore rather than genuine scares to deliver the shocks. The film is clearly a product of the influence of "torture porn" flicks like the SAW series and HOSTEL, wherein excruciating depictions of mutilation and suffering are lingered over with a borderline-prurient gaze, creating in the audience a sense of physical discomfort as opposed to the more visceral dread generated by the primal horrors wrought by trying to wrap our collective heads around forces and beings that we cannot hope to understand or prevail against. Seeing some crazed psychopath slowly drag a weathered machete across the flesh above one's kneecap is something that's all-too-easy to understand and relate to, and while it is definitely horrifying in the way that the details of  the real-world's "mundane" serial murders can be, it's just not comparable to the horror of the imagination. Instead of making that sort of effort, the film delivers amounts of gore and spew that frankly surprised me, especially when considering how pussified the MPAA has been when applying ratings to violent/gory content over the past twenty years or so, and as such EVIL DEAD will no doubt delight gorehounds to no end. In fact, on the scale of sheer gore, this film easily receives a solid 10 out of a possible 10, which makes me wonder if anyone at the MPAA even saw it.

Now don't get me wrong, I love gore. Love it! It's just that I'm no longer an adolescent who's jonesing for "forbidden" sights and thrills and plot be damned, so when I am treated to bucketloads of the red and gooey stuff, I like to see that element in service of a story with real narrative flesh beyond something told around a campfire. My own personal taste in horror nowadays runs more toward what the given scary scenario has to say about the human condition, and in this case I suppose the demonic possession and what it results in could be seen as a commentary on addiction and how it affects the addicted individual and their loved ones written in the most broad of strokes, but EVIL DEAD obviously has no such considerations on its mind and is instead content with giving us the most basic of setups as an excuse for what is an admittedly impressive bit of way-over-the-top charnel house entertainment. That's all well and good but the individual audience member's mileage may vary.

Some of the gruesome set pieces are quite compelling in the way that one is powerless to look away from a car accident where severed body parts litter the asphalt and splashes of what was once the very fluid that fueled those bodies paint the tableau in congealing sanguinary shades. Especially good are the rather...intimate way in which the entity enters Mia's body (in a nod to the original's infamous tree sequence; ladies, you are guaranteed to squirm), Natalie's solution to a possessed left arm (hint: it involves an electric carving knife), a lesson in the offensive application of a loaded nail gun, and the bifurcation of a once-human tongue via the use of an extendable utility knife, all of which employ the modern grand guignol sensibility taken to a giddy extreme.

Mia and an apparently tasty utility knife.

It should also be noted that this is the first feature from Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, and while he does not hit the audience with the kind of innovative razzle-dazzle that Sam Raimi brought to the proceedings thirty-two years ago (though certain shots crib from Raimi's memorable stylistic touches), this effort is assured and quite professionally crafted. I hope this film is a springboard to bigger and better works from him.

So when all is considered, I recommend EVIL DEAD but also advise waiting for cable, unless you just have to see its excesses unspool on the big screen, which I can certainly understand. It's entertaining for what it is — not great but entertaining — and if you are a gorehound, you will be in hog heaven. If, however, you are like me and prefer your horror with more meat to it, it's an okay way to pass the time until something heavier is unleashed. Oh, and there's an extra for those who stay through to the end of the film's credits. I mention it solely for completists as it is an utterly gratuitous piece of fan service, adds nothing to the narrative, does nothing to set up a possible/inevitable sequel, and it's over in maybe six or seven seconds. If you miss it, you miss nothing but I figured I alert you to it anyway.

The poster for the theatrical release, making a claim that few films live up to and that this one definitely doesn't.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

THE BODYGUARD (1976)


After years of being available in a crappy pan-and-scan print, the Americanized version of 1973's Sonny Chiba opus KARATE KIBA is available in a nice widescreen edition, proving once and for all that a gilded turd is still a turd.

This grindhouse mainstay opens with the following narrated text crawl:

"The path of the righteous man and defender is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and goodwill shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper, and the father of lost children.

"And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious anger, who poison and destroy my brothers; and they shall know that I am CHIBA the BODYGUARD when I lay my vengeance upon them.

"Ezekiel 25:17"

Sound familiar? It should if you've seen PULP FICTION, since Quentin Tarantino, a notorious Sonny Chiba groupie, lifted it (Surprise!) for duty as Sam Jackson's thoroughly badassed signature line in that film.

Anyway, THE BODYGUARD is a dull waste of time that has pretty much the least amount of martial arts I've ever seen in a film allegedly of the martial arts genre. As a matter of fact, the flick's more of a routine crime flick that features Chiba — whose character's name, "Kiba," is re-dubbed "Chiba" so we're supposed to think the movie's a document of Sonny's day-to-day adventures — as an international crimefighter/bodyguard/badass-for-hire who announces on live TV that he's out to take down the mob and other such drug-dealing punks after he singlehandedly thwarts an airplane hijacking by Mafia goons which is odd since every single supposed Mafioso in evidence is played by a Japanese guy).

Chiba's live TV demonstration of his badassery.

In no time Chiba finds himself bodyguarding a mysterious woman (Judy Lee) who gives him not one shred of information as to who she is or why she needs protection from the armed killers who dog her every step, and the resulting plot is so turgid that even us die-hard Sonny Chiba fans just will not care. The characters jump from one scene of standing around and gabbing about deceptions and double-crosses to another, filling the screen with endless talking heads while the screen should rightfully be filled with images of Chiba beating the motherfucking piss out of all comers while gouging out their eyeballs and tearing off their nuts with his bare hands every three minutes. The camerawork is often amateurishly hand-held, the bane of seventies Japanese action flicks, and the whole thing comes off as less lively than any given episode of a routine cop show. By the time we find out that Chiba's client was the mistress of a slain Mafia capo and is doing her damnedest to get her hands on a cool million's-worth of heroin so she make a final big score, most audience members will have turned off the DVD or fallen asleep.

The one almost-decent action scene features Chiba on the other side of a closed door, a barrier he punches through to grab the arm of a guman; once the gunman's limb is secure in his grasp, Chiba gives the guy a nasty, bone-protruding compound fracture and then rips off said limb for later use as a throwing weapon. That sequence takes up maybe two minutes out of a total of nearly ninety, and from that bit of business to the next set-to it's a long, dry haul.

So basically THE BODYGUARD sucks ass. I've tried about five times over the years to sit through it in its entirety while sober, having made it all the way through once in the early nineties while drunk out of my mind after coming home from eight hours of hard drinking at Bar X (a favorite hangout of the Marvel Bullpen in those days), and I was only able to make it through last night because of the widescreen format allowing me to see shots and compostions that were cut off and thereby rendered incomprehensible by the pan-and-scan VHS version. Needless to say, I'd missed absolutely nothing.

'70's-era martial artists Aaron Banks and Bill Louie: Unintentionally the most entertaining aspect of the American version of this film.

The only thing keeping this sleep aid in my collection is a mind-boggling bit of nonsense tacked onto the early moments of the film by the American distributor: a hand-held camera's point-of-view wanders the then-sleazy streets of Manhattan's Times Square, eventually staggering up the stairs of a martial arts studio. In this dojo with walls papered with 42nd Street grindhouse karate movie posters stands Bill Louie, an apparently Hispanic martial artist in a stylish sweatsuit — he's a dead ringer for Freddie Prinze, the guy from TV's CHICO & THE MAN, not his son who starred in SCOOBY-DOUCHE and other like crap — who hands out ass-whuppings on what I presume are his students, all while doing his best impression of Bruce Lee's moves and cat-in-a-vise screeches. Observing this is Aaron Banks, a Semitic/Italian-looking dude in a karate gi, who notes upon Louie's completion of his fit of Bruce-ism, in a John Wayne/Brooklyn accent no less, "Thats pretty good. But here's how Sonny Chiba woulda done it." Banks then launches into full-on post-THE STREET FIGHTER Chiba histrionics, savagely assaulting a couple of students, one of whom he suspends off the mat by a good grip on the guy's clockweights, after which he puts his fist to the face of the other poor bastard with a jump-cut that makes it look like the dude's being hit by a flesh-and-bone sledge hammer. Composing himself, Banks stands up and Louie comments, "Yeah, but Bruce had more speed and science. He'd probably have done something like this..." Louie stoops and picks up a pair of matched nunchaku — or "chucks," if you prefer — then launches into a totally gratuitous display with them while shrieking like a madman, culminating in him catching the flails under his arms and uttering a triumphant and Flip Wilson-esque "WHOOOO!" Banks looks thoughtful and says, "Yeah...I can see your point." (I can't.) "By the way, where is Sonny Chiba?" He and Louie contemplate that question for a moment, chins in hands and practically saying, "Hmmm..." at which point the actual movie lurches to a start. I've seen this sequence many times and, much moreso than the arm-removal, it's the only genuinely entertaining moment in the entire film. Avoid THE BODYGUARD like you'd avoid having one of those handheld apple-corers shoved up your anus. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

"I'm gonna kick my own ass for starring in this piece of shit!"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

THE CHALLENGE (1982)

The 1980's were a generally terrible period for western-made martial arts movies, featuring an assortment of bland Chuck Norris vehicles and a glut of almost uniformly awful ninja movies, but one quality American production slipped through the cracks and is largely forgotten today, despite the considerable talent that went into its making. That film is 1982's THE CHALLENGE, directed by John Frankenheimer (RONIN), scripted by John Sayles (THE HOWLING), and starring Scott Glenn (THE RIGHT STUFF) opposite legendary Kurosawa leading man Toshiro Mifune, (SEVEN SAMURAI, THRONE OF BLOOD, RED BEARD) and considering how across-the-board good it is, I'd like to know why the hell it took so fucking long to get a legitimate release on DVD. THE CHALLENGE had a virtually non-existent theatrical run — under this title, as well as THE EQUALS and SWORD OF THE NINJA — and a blink-and-you-missed-it VHS release, so was there some orchestrated conspiracy to keep this ignored classic out of the moviegoing public's eye?

Not-so-lovable loser Rick (Scott Glenn), the film's ugly American.

The story follows Rick, a so-so has-been-who-never-was of a boxer who's pretty much relegated to being a punching bag of a sparring partner in an LA boxing gym. The guy's unrefined muscle, which is exactly what a Japanese paraplegic hires him to be during a trip to Japan on an errand to return a rare sword to his family, one half of a pair dubbed "the Equals." But what looked to be a piece of cake bodyguarding gig quickly goes sour when Rick finds himself in the middle of a decades-long and deadly-bitter feud between two sides of a noble family, with each faction seeking to possess the reunited swords. On one side there's master-warrior good guy Teru Yoshida (Toshiro Mifune) and his forest-dwelling martial disciples, while the villain of the piece is Teru's modernized (read "evil") asshole of a corporate-head brother, Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura), who's a samurai badass in his own right and who also has an assortment of yakuza killers and a heavily armed private army at his disposal. Upon reaching Japan, Rick is paid and given his walking papers, but the bad guys stop him before he reaches the airport and make him an offer he can't refuse: infiltrate Teru's order, pretend to be interested in learning his ways and, once ensconced as a disciple, steal Teru's sword and hand it over to Hideo. Oh, and refusal to comply equals death on the spot, so what's a guy to do?

Rick very reluctantly joins Teru's group of old school budoka and endures their rigorous training, learning much of the mental, physical, and spiritual disciplines that make Teru and his followers both practical, hardcore badasses and "pure" embodiments of the warrior ethic, all the while keeping an eye open for an opportunity to make off with the sword. When that moment comes, Rick leaves the mountain retreat with the weapon in hand but there's enough decency within him to make him turn around and return, apologizing for his lapse in behavior — and then seeing that his every step was dogged by concealed, expert archers who at any moment during his escape attempt could easily have made sure he'd never have gotten away alive — after which he butches up and immerses himself into his training in earnest, finding his way as both a warrior and a man in the process. There's also a rather unnecessary romantic subplot in which Rick falls in love with Teru's daughter (Donna Kei Benz), but I guess if she wasn't around to get kidnapped by the bad guys there wouldn't have been an excuse for Teru and Rick to storm Hideo's corporate fortress and hand out gory ass-kickings and disembowelings like Halloween candy.

And at this point I guess it's fair to include a SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW HOW THE FILM ENDS, KINDLY SKIP THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS.

The final fifteen minutes or so of the film are a spectacular culmination to the inter-familial war that had been brewing, no two ways about it. Having fought their way up the various levels of Hideo's corporate building after taking out dozens of guards who were armed with machine guns, the heroes confront Hideo in his study and the moment when the brothers must duel to the death is at hand, so Hideo orders all of his troops to stand down. The master swordsmen begin their duel as Rick and Teru's daughter watch in breathless silence, but the fight is cut short when one of Hideo's overzealous henchmen — a nasty piece of work named Ando — shoots Teru in the shoulder, interrupting the sanctity of the brother-against-brother battle. A furious Hideo beheads Ando on the spot and expresses regret to Teru that their fated skirmish didn't play out as he would have liked, but the now-purified Rick picks up Teru's sword, thereby representing his master's teachings, and steps in to take Teru's place.

Perhaps the most unfair sword fight in movie history.

Insanely overmatched, Rick enters the fray and is immediately chased all over the study like a three-legged mouse avoiding a healthy and vicious tomcat, taking considerable damage as he resorts to fighting dirty, using everything from a stapler to a bookcase as defensive weapons. It soon becomes clear that there's no fucking way Rick will survive this fight unless he gets very, very lucky, so when Hideo's sword gets stuck in a cubicle-divider after a sword thrust, Rick seizes the moment and cuts Hideo's head in half, right down to the neck. The camera then cuts back to the wounded Teru and his daughter, both of whom notice the lack of combat noise from the other room and now expect the worst. The pair are visibly shocked to see a bloodied and staggering Rick emerge with the Equals, at which point he composes himself enough to lay the weapons at his master's feet and kneel in front of the old man, the very picture of Zen serenity. THE END.

What impressed me most about that scene was how it finally played out: Even though Rick soundly defeated Hideo, the heroes would still probably never leave the building alive or would likely face incarceration for multiple counts of homicide at the very least, but that's not what's important here. The Equals were reunited and the morally upstanding characters made it happen, and that's all that matters, with Rick's journey being crucial to the outcome. And unlike dozens of other martial arts films I could name, Rick doesn't evolve overnight into a guy who could take on scores of bad guys with a sword and his fists, instead embracing the spirit of a warrior and coupling that with his street smart, anything goes pugilistic skills when push came to shove. When I first saw THE CHALLENGE and witnessed Rick about to take on Hideo I exclaimed, "Oh, get the fuck outta here!," but I was pleasantly surprises to see that filmmakers didn't buy it either and instead had Rick get his ass handed to him in no uncertain terms until he seized that fortuitous split-second opportunity.

Everything about this movie works — I'll let the romance angle slide — and it holds the viewer riveted from start to finish, so why did THE CHALLENGE languishing in totally undeserved obscurity for over three decades? I don't understand it and if you ever get to see it for yourself, neither will you.

Poster from the original theatrical release.