Retro Review: THE CHALLENGE (1982)

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The Challenge

Ahhh…the 80’s.  Cable TV had finally come to my small town and my dad purchased the ultimate package with all the movie channels.  Any of you old enough to remember those days will recall how some movies on HBO, The Movie Channel, and so on were on regular rotation, and seemed to be on all the time. One of those movies was The Challenge aka Sword of the Ninja.

In 1945 a pair of Katanas (Japanese swords) called ‘The Equals’ are being passed on as family heirlooms. During the ceremony, the swords are separated during a vicious attack. Nearly 40 years later one of the swords is tracked down in America  A down-on-his-luck boxer named Rick is offered a nice payday to smuggle the sword back to Japan so it can be returned to its rightful owner. He accepts the offer and once in Japan becomes immediately embroiled in a feud between two brothers, each of whom wants to possess ‘The Equals’. One brother, Hideo, is a captain of industry and incredibly wealthy. The other, Yoshido, runs a dojo, lives humbly, honors tradition and the bushido way. Rick is given a choice by Ando, the nephew of Hideo. Join the dojo and earn their trust so he can steal the sword back or go home in a box. Given basically no choice, Rick joins the dojo and begins to learn the bushido way.

Rick’s first day of bushido class

Will Rick steal the sword back? Will someone lose their head along the way? Will there be a ham-fisted romance for no reason? Will you see a stapler used like it never has before? All these questions are answered by the end of the movie.

Scott Glenn stars as the boxer, Rick. Glenn has had a fine career as a character actor, but this is one of the few times he was the leading man. The brothers are played respectively by Atsuo Nakamura (Hideo) and the great Toshiro Mifune (Yoshida). Of course, Mifune is the honorable brother who runs the dojo. Calvin Jung, Donna Kei Benz, and Clyde Kusatsu round out the supporting cast. Kusatsu is recognizable as he has over 312 credits to his name on IMDB ranging from Days of our Lives to Midway.


This film was directed by John Frankenheimer and falls somewhere in the middle of his catalog. He directed some great films including The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, Way of the Gun, and Black Sunday. He also directed The Prophecy and The Island of Dr. Moreau…so, oh well. Three writers are credited – Richard Maxwell, Ivan Moffat, and John Sayles.

Jerry Goldsmith composed the film’s rousing score and it’s really great. Featuring lots of percussion, it works well to punctuate the action scenes.


Overall, it’s a good movie.  Shot principally in Japan there’s some good location work. There’s an earnest effort to show some of the fighting and defense techniques. Steven Seagal (credited as “Steve Seagal” per IMDB) was a technical advisor here. There’s some great action, especially the last act which is an assault on Hideo’s corporate office. The Challenge is mostly a martial arts actioner but also has fish out of water elements.

It’s definitely worthy of a watch if you’ve never seen it, but if you’re over 50 and had cable in the 80’s you probably have watched it several times already.



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