American boxer Rick Murphy (Scott Glenn) is hired to smuggle a rare katana – a traditional Japanese sword – into Tokyo. Ambushed on arrival, he finds himself caught between two warring brothers: the younger Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura) is a powerful crime boss, while elder brother Yoshida (Toshiru Mifune) runs a dojo and clings to the traditional values of Japanese history. Each brother owns one of a pair of swords, and will stop at nothing to retrieve the other from their sibling.
The Challenge is a 1982 action film directed by John Frankenheimer and written by Richard Maxwell, Marc Norman and John Sayles. It could arguably form part of an unofficial trilogy of films: Sydney Pollack’s 1974 thriller The Yakuza leading the charge, The Challenge in the middle, and Ridley Scott’s 1989 film Black Rain wrapping things up. In all three films a hard-edged, cynical white American man must travel to an exotic and unfamiliar Japan, where the locals hold onto ancient traditions and swords seem about as common in the action scenes as handguns. All three are moderately racist, and present an actively Orientalist depiction of some ‘mystical east’. All three are the work of genuinely respected and talented filmmakers – albeit in all three cases for better films made at other times. They all star popular, heavily masculine American stars (Robert Mitchum, Scott Glenn, and Michael Douglas) supported by stoic, gruff Japanese men (Ken Takakura in The Yakuza and Black Rain, and Toshiro Mifune here). Of course in between these three films there was a wave of direct-to-video productions following various Caucasian men becoming powerful ninja or swordsmen. For a solid two decades there it was popular territory for American action cinema.
Of the three key films I’ve mentioned, The Challenge is the least accomplished. It lacks the muscular tone and visuals of the other two, and regularly stumbles quite close to being one of those direct-to-video also-rans. Its story is not only weirdly simplistic, but simultaneously unfocused. Rick travels to Japan, and basically spends about an hour vacillating over whether to study traditional Japanese combat under Yoshido or simply steal his sword and sell it to Hideo for a quick profit. He has a love affair with Yoshida’s daughter Akiko (Donna Kei Benz), not because there is really space in the story for a romance to form but seemingly because that is just the sort of thing that is supposed to happen in these kinds of films.
Despite the stereotypes, the flaws and the rambling ignorant racism, there is something about The Challenge that makes it a surprisingly easy watch. It is partly Scott Glenn’s relaxed lead performance – his first – and Toshiro Mifune’s well-honed gruff stoicism. It is partly the unexpectedly realistic setting – unlike most American films set in Japan, The Challenge was completely shot in location there. It is partly the wonderfully unrealistic climax, in which Yoshida and Rick storm Hideo’s corporate heardquarters and fight off machine gun-wielding henchmen with swords and bows. It is ultimately about as cheesy an action film as you can get, but it’s just well enough acted and impressively shot to rise above the parapet of mediocrity. Is it a film worth hunting down? Probably not – unless you’re a Frankenheimer completist or a Mifune fan looking for something particularly throwaway and silly.