The Challenge

Director: John Frankenheimer  
Scott Glenn, Toshiro Mifune, Donna Kei Benz

I like to think that I am a well-traveled man. Not just with watching all sorts of movies for this web site as well as on my own time, but also with the parts of this world of ours that do not involve movies. I am happy to report that during my lifetime I have managed to personally visit many interesting corners of the world. I've passed through a lot of scenic places in the northwestern corner of the United States, including Yellowstone Park (no bears stealing pic-a-nik baskets there - in fact, I didn't see a single bear at all.) And I have been overseas to several countries, including Egypt (spectacular monuments and deserts, but some shocking poverty in its cities), England (it's true - the English are more or less like us and are not snooty), and South Korea (horrible weather and the people not very outgoing to foreigners, though at least it was not North Korea.) One of the countries that I was finally glad to actually visit was Japan. Over the years before actually making the trip, I had made many Japan-related observations in books, television, and movies that made me quite frankly intrigued by the country. Unlike where I lived, Japan seemed to be a fascinating mix of both modern western culture as well as ancient Asian culture. A country that made great video games, entertaining giant monster movies, and killer manga such as Golgo 13. And a country that even hundreds of years ago managed to make cool things such as ninjas and karate. I'm not saying that everything about the country was so appealing to me. When I took a beginner's Japanese language course at university, I quickly learned how complex and difficult their language was. And the rigid politeness and manners of the society seemed to me, well, excessive.

Although there's a lot that's positive one could say about the elegance of the Japanese language and civility towards others, personally I feel fortunate to live in a country where I can freely flip off some jerk who cuts me off, while at the same time I spout off a good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon four-lettered word. Seriously, though, I have interest in all things Japanese, including the language and etiquette rules. I know I am by far not the only North American to have interest in things Japanese. So you may understand why I am kind of frustrated when it comes to movies about Japan and the Japanese. When it comes to Japanese movies, they can be hard to find, because few North American distributors pick up the rights to these movies. It's even worse when it comes to Hollywood movies concerning Japan and Japanese people - not that many have been made. Why has Hollywood been so reluctant to make such movies? Well, over the years I have gathered a few possible explanations. One obvious reason is that shooting a movie in Japan can be quite expensive. If you can't get away with filming the bulk of a Japan-themed movie in another (and cheaper) country like The Last Samurai and The Hunted did, the potential cost can be a turn-off. Another potential problem that has not encouraged Hollywood producers is with dealing with Japanese talent, from key grips to actors. In his book All I Needed To Know About Filmmaking I Leared From The Toxic Avenger, filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman revealed that he learned that the makers of the Michael Douglas movie Black Rain attempted to shoot the movie in a typically aggressive and arrogant Hollywood style in Japan, and this caused so much headaches and resentment from the Japanese crew that the Hollywood talent soon decided to leave Japan and film the bulk of the movie on sets in Hollywood. Although Kaufman managed to film a movie of his in Japan without annoying the Japanese (by great care and extreme respect), he did find it was a great challenge at times, a challenge that might have thrown off a less determined filmmaker.

There are other problems with the idea of an American production shooting a movie in Japan that concerns Japanese people (language, for instance), though many of these are obvious so I won't get into them. I will say, however, that it's pretty easy to determine why Hollywood has The Challengenot been that gung ho about making such Japan-themed movies. And many that have been made have faded to obscurity. But recently I stumbled upon a Hollywood made Japan-themed movie whose obscurity puzzled me - The Challenge. It had quite a pedigree. For starters, it was directed by John Frankenheimer, who in his career directed movies such as The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman Of Alcatraz. and French Connection II. It had a script cowritten by famed independent filmmaker John Sayles (Lone Star). And one of the stars of the movie was Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo), one of the few Japanese actors to reach the consciousness of moviegoers in North America. Mifune plays Toru Yoshida, a traditionalist Japanese man who has had a long rivalry with his modernized brother Hideo Yoshida (Atsuo Nakamura, Kwaidan). Both brothers are desperately looking for a family heirloom sword that was lost during the closing days of World War II. The sword is traced to California, and there a washed-up American boxer named Rick Murphy (Glenn, Night Of The Running Man) is hired to smuggle the sword into Japan. Upon reaching Japan, Rick finds out that the sword he smuggled in was a fake - he was simply used as a decoy. After a series of events, Hideo persuades Rick to infiltrate Toru's martial arts dojo, and retrieve the sword. But as Rick waits for the perfect opportunity to steal the real sword, he finds himself slowly captivated by Toru's various lessons on traditional Japanese ways. It also helps that Toru has a beautiful daughter (Benz, Pray For Death) that Rick soon finds himself attracted to. But despite Rick's change of heart, the danger of the sword being taken by Hideo and his gun-toting fighters remains great. Can the traditionalists make a successful stand against those trained in modern warfare?

I have to confess that there is often something about movies involving westerners that immerse themselves in Asian culture that bothers me greatly. The thing that bothers me is that frequently the western characters become akin to the stereotype of "the ugly American", not treating Asians or Asian culture with the right amount of respect. As a westerner myself, and one who for the longest time has tried to respect other cultures, such films embarrass me greatly and make me ashamed to be Caucasian. The Challenge is one movie where the hero for the longest time is grotesque in front of the audience's eyes. At the beginning of the movie, he calls Asians "gook face" and "Jap", and he uses the "s" and "f" words. Rick later asks Toru for his promised fee when Toru is in the middle of mourning his recently killed son. Shortly afterwards, he gets drunk on sake in front of Toru and his students, he later tells a student that he's going to "kick [his] ass", and he refuses to pay the bill when he takes a break at a local watering hole. These are just some of the things that make it impossible for the longest time to warm up to this guy. Oh, I guess this was intentional, in order to show that Rick is positively changed by his training at Toru's dojo, eventually acting with honor and regard to the people around him. But even when this happens, we simply can't forget the previous crude and rude behavior of this guy. When Rick makes friends with a small Japanese boy who is training at the dojo, in one scene giving the boy encouragement when he is feeling down, it comes across as abrupt and extremely phony. I simply could not believe the kind words coming out of the mouth of a guy who just a short time earlier was crude in tongue and actions.

There's another problem with the character of Rick - Scott Glenn, the actor playing him, simply doesn't give that good of a performance. He often reads his lines like he's feeling great disinterest in his surroundings. Now I know Glenn can act, having given an amazing performance in Night Of The Running Man. So what happened here? I'm not sure. Maybe his acting improved over time and it was not here the fault of the director, since there are some decent performances by the rest of the cast. Calvin Jung (RoboCop), as Hideo's henchman, shows some real conviction. Atsuo Nakamura, as the evil brother Hideo, play the role as evil but down to earth and believable. The star performance, of course, is that of Toshiro Mifune. Although not give that much dialogue (and not much of it in English), Mifune even in his 60s has a lot of charisma and handles the physical parts of the role with great energy. He grabs your attention in every scene even when he doesn't say a word. But while these and a few other performances in The Challenge are good, even these talented actors can't hide the fact that their roles are grossly underwritten. You might expect, for example, that the character of the evil brother Hideo would play a great role in the movie. But believe it or not, this character only appears in two (extremely brief) sequences before the last twenty or so minutes of the movie. It's hard to get worked up about an enemy who barely appears. Another example of how the weak characters make the movie suffer include Toru's daughter. She doesn't really get to show what her thoughts and feelings are, so when Rick falls for her, you wonder what on earth Rick saw in her in the first place. Or for that matter, what she saw in him.

But it's not just the characters in The Challenge that give the movie a significant impersonal feeling. It's also with John Frankenheimer's direction. While almost the entire movie was actually filmed in Japan itself, more likely than not you'll be struck by how much of the movie doesn't actually feel that way. When Rick arrives at the Osaka airport, Frankenheimer's various shots and camera angles seem to be masking just about anything that would be considered local and Japanese. Much of what follows feels like it could have been filmed anywhere. But Frankenheimer's direction has a bigger flaw, and that flaw is that most of the movie unfolds at a very slow and boring pace. The movie is way too serious for its own good, and desperately needed an occasional jolt of humor. However, in the last twenty or so minutes of the movie, things pick up considerably. The lengthy sequence, a raid of Hideo's compound, has some cool visuals, but more importantly has some quite well done action sequences, at least if you can accept the fact that Rick has mastered samurai swordplay in just a few days. Watching this sequence, I suddenly realized what went wrong with The Challenge - if it had been rewritten to be a full-on action movie, chances are it would have worked a lot better than it actually did. Proof of this can be seen in a movie that was made thirteen years later, the Christopher Lambert movie The Hunted. It's a movie with some striking similarities to The Challenge, and while it is far from a perfect movie, it works somewhat better than The Challenge does for the most part. Watch that movie instead of The Challenge if you want to see westerners getting entangled in Japanese swordplay and honor codes.

(Posted March 25, 2016)

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See also: Night Of The Running Man, Sakura Killers, Sword Of Honor