By all accounts, this movie should be a total disaster. And it’s not. Not even close. It’s a wild blast of hard-boiled fun. Directed by John Frankenheimer, co-written by Richard Maxwell and John Sayles, and starring Scott Glenn as an American boxer turned swordsman who gets mixed up in a family feud between rival brothers (Toshiro Mifune and Atsuo Nakamura) who are battling over possession of two sought-after samurai swords, The Challenge defies expectations in more ways than one, putting a unique spin on a long-standing genre. This is a rather violent and nasty film, with Glenn playing the stoic man of action who needs to learn a thing or two before being fully combat ready, while Mifune’s inherent sense of gravitas added a layer of seriousness to an otherwise over the top but no less entertaining scenario. Frankenheimer was always well suited when it came to filming action, and in The Challenge, he was able to mix in a wild chase through crowded Japanese streets, decapitation-friendly sword fights, and all sorts of general mayhem that genre fans will righteously enjoy.
Cinematographer Kozo Okazaki, who also shot The Yakuza for director Sydney Pollack, did a great job capturing all of the set-pieces with a clear sense of spatial awareness and a clean sense of style; Jack and John Wheeler’s editing remains punchy all throughout. And because Frankenheimer never knew a milieu he wasn’t interested in tackling, this film feels even more accomplished, made by a filmmaker who had already made a number of masterpieces, instead here just churning out a rollicking and unpretentious flick. Steven Seagal served as the film’s choreographer during the aikido-based action sequences, while The Challenge features a tremendous musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. The last 15 minutes are an absolutely amazing full-on battle, with swords, machine guns, and all sorts of martial arts being thrown around, with a crazy body-count and tons of humor to match the bloody action. Shot entirely on location in Japan, the film would certainly make for a great double feature with Ridley Scott’s underrated and very stylistically moody actioner Black Rain. The Challenge is available on a beautiful looking and sounding Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber.