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.
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.
Perhaps the most unfair sword fight in movie history.
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.