The Challenge Blu-ray Review: Accept This Challenge

Before you write this film off as a typical low-budget ‘80s actioner, take a closer look at the credits. Star turns by Scott Glenn (Netflix/Disney Daredevil) and absolute icon Toshiro Mifune. Direction by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) from a script by Richard Maxwell and Oscar-nominated writer/director John Sayles. Even the score is by soundtrack titan Jerry Goldsmith, struggling his best to merge symphonic grandeur with Asian flourishes. They all add up to create a project that greatly benefits from the impressive sum of its parts.

Glenn opens the film as a scrappy Californian boxer who gets approached to assist a handicapped Japanese man in his quest to return a contested samurai sword to its rightful owner in Japan. The sword is one of a matching pair that are the source of decades-long beef between two adult brothers, the sons of the prior owner. One brother is a wealthy modern businessman who marshalls his vast resources to recover the sword, while the other brother (Mifune) is devoted to the classic samurai life, running an old rural dojo where he trains his devoted acolytes in the way of the warrior.

It’s no surprise that Glenn’s character ends up Karate Kidding his way through the plot, falling under the spell of Mifune’s old ways as he devotes himself to self-discipline and vastly improved combat skills. The ongoing struggle over the swords and the simmering bad blood between the two Japanese brothers add considerable tension throughout the plot, ensuring that there’s never a dull moment. Glenn’s character is ultimately little more than an observer to a sibling showdown between historic and modern Japanese life, a microcosm of the monumental changes that transpired in post-World War II Japanese society. His character arc also foreshadows his later work as Stick in Daredevil, the classically trained blind sensei to Matt Murdock, with this film easily standing in as an origin story for Stick.

There’s no doubt that the biggest calling card for the film is the inclusion of Kurosawa mainstay Toshiro Mifune. Rest assured that he’s all in for this film, not just showing up for a glorified cameo. While English clearly isn’t one of his strengths, he gets through his lines just fine and unleashes his still-powerful glare to drive home the intensity of his feelings. He also has some action scenes, and there’s no bigger treat in the film than seeing him in full classic samurai robes brandishing his sword against baddies as he did so many times in Kurosawa’s films.

Aside from a commentary track by a pair of film historians, the only bonus features are trailers for this film and other assorted Kino Lorber releases. The Blu-ray picture quality doesn’t seem to have gone through any significant restoration, with plenty of debris still evident on the print. However, the footage is crystal clear and maintains color and stability throughout each scene. It’s a great showcase for this little-known film, and a fine reminder of the majesty of Toshiro Mifune’s work.

The Challenge is available starting Tuesday, October 31st.

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Steve Geise

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