John Frankenheimer - 1982
KL Studio Classics BD Region A
One of the little ironies of John Frankenheimer's career is that he made a film titled Ronin about sixteen year after making a film with the actor who personified the ronin for western audiences. Among his handful of Hollywood films, The Challenge may cause some eye rolling on the part of those viewers who at least know Toshiro Mifune from his work with Akira Kurosawa. While Mifune's reputation as a beloved star of world cinema would not be disturbed by this particular misstep, a younger audience might be baffled by the notion that for a very brief moment, top billed Scott Glenn was considered a movie star.
Tall, thin, and perpetually glum, Glenn plays a down and out boxer who's been payed to sneak a coveted samurai sword back to Japan from Los Angeles. Somehow, this guy who lives in a low rent dump just happens to have a valid passport. The film jumps to Glenn showing up at Narita Airport where he promptly gets kidnapped by some hoods who are also looking for the sword. Glenn finds a way of breaking out of the car when it is somewhere outside of Tokyo. If anyone was looking for realism, it's not here, because I have travelled between Narita Airport and Tokyo, a trip that literally takes hours. In any event, Glenn finds himself caught in a deadly sibling rivalry between two brothers, Toshiro Mifune, who runs a school for samurai, even though there have been no samurai for about one hundred years. The younger brother is played by Atsuo Nakamura, who seems to claims full or partial ownership of several corporations, but feels his life is incomplete unless he has that damn sword. Making the most of his supporting role is Calvin Jung as Nakamura's chief thug, so Americanized that he complains about not understanding Japanese thought, and familiar enough with a Yiddish euphemism that makes him the most endearing character here.
Richard Maxwell and John Sayles share writing credit, but I have no idea who did what. Probably credit should go to Leonard and Paul Schrader. Even though The Yakuza was hardly the hit that it should have been back in 1975, I get the idea that the goal was some kind of one-upmanship of Sidney Pollack's film. Instead of the relatively unknown Ken Takakura, get the almost universally familiar Toshiro Mifune. Instead of a couple of shootouts, lets get swords, machine guns and arrows! The violence ante is upped from that moment in The Yakuza where an arm is lopped off while shooting a gun.
The cinematography is by Kozo Okazaki, who also worked on, yes, The Yakuza. Okazaki's work can be seen to better advantage in his work with Hideo Gosha. One wishes the climatic fight scene was staged better, but like the rest of the film, it is entertaining to watch Toshiro Mifune run around with a gray wig, with sword and bow and arrows, in what looks like the world's most opulent office building. There are also a couple of Frankenheimer signature shots involving television screens. And read those end credits closely - the martial arts coordinator was someone named Steven Seagal. That said, it is the very wrong-headedness of The Challenge that makes it a fun trifle of Orientalism, by a group of people who should have known better.