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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Challenge (1982) (Blu-ray)
The Challenge (1982) (Blu-ray)
Kino // R // February 16, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 11, 2016 | E-mail the Author

A forgotten but enjoyable East-meets-West production peppered by big names, John Frankenheimer's The Challenge (1982) offers plenty of action and just enough drama to slow things down a little. Our story follows American boxer Rick Murphy (Scott Glenn, Silence of the Lambs) during an unexpected trip: he's been hired by Toshio Yoshida (Sab Shimono, Jackie Chan Adventures) to smuggle a valuable sword back to Japan for his father Toru (Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo). A family heirloom and half of a pair known as "The Equals", the other sword of its kind is guarded closely by Toru's wealthy industrialist brother Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura, The Water Margin). Only problem is, the smuggled sword is a decoy...and soon enough, Rick is captured and ends up seeing both sides of the Yoshida family drama. Before long, he must choose a side while adjusting to his unexpectedly long vacation in a foreign country.

The Challenge does a number of things very well, but none are more immediately noticeable than the film's dynamic and highly entertaining action scenes; its climactic 15-minute long "castle raid" is one hell of an exclamation point, and almost worth the price of admission alone. Long before that, a handful of chase sequences and fights help to maintain a reasonably good pace and gradually build momentum, even if it's not entirely smooth from start to finish. The Challenge is not without plenty of rough edges: even if it's softened by Rick's obligatory love affair with Akiko (Yoshida's only daughter, played by Donna Kei Benz) and a friendship with seven year-old Jiro (Kenta Fukasaku), this is at times a brutal mix of cultural friction and 1980s action excess. At least one head is lopped off, another is split nearly in two, countless goons are gunned down or arrowed, Rick is buried up to his head for five days, and a particularly stomach-turning dinner scene is equaled only by the later Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Aside from all that window dressing, The Challenge wants to be a character-driven drama but doesn't succeed on the same level. The central arc of Glenn's Rick Murphy plays out differently than it does on paper; though not without a few bright spots, it's not developed enough during the film's slightly rushed second act. At 108 minutes, Frankenheimer's film never quite gels as either a convincing transformation for Rick or a fully-developed story about the warring family members he's dealing with. There's a distinct back-and-forth between both halves of what The Challenge is after...and to its credit, they're both passable enough to keep the production afloat more often than not. Still, this is a film that gets by more on other merits---the "fish out of water" dynamic, intriguing atmosphere, great action, Jerry Goldsmith's terrific score---than as a narrative, and it's often enough to hide some of the film's shortcomings. Needless to say, those new to The Challenge (pretty much everyone, based on its box office return and absence on Region 1 DVD) should enjoy the introduction, while die-hard fans will be thrilled to finally have it on disc.

Speaking of which, Kino's new Blu-ray is a far from a polished and definitive effort: the A/V presentation is good but hardly flawless, while the complete lack of supplements (especially considering the names involved) sells it a little short. But there's still the obvious "hidden gem" appeal of a film like The Challenge finally behind rescued from VHS oblivion, ready to be discovered by a new generation of fans. If you're an established fan, either via the original film or the edited-for-TV version (re-titled Sword of the Ninja), I'm sure you'll have fun getting re-acquainted.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, The Challenge looks reasonably good in high definition with a few obvious problems. On one hand, it's hard to judge the film's visual merits: I never saw it theatrically and it wasn't released on Region 1 DVD, so comparisons are difficult. But since a great deal of it takes place outdoors in the daytime, a certain level of image detail is assumed and that's what we get on this decent 1080p transfer. Still, other stretches are more inconsistent than expected: the natural color palette feels more drab and muddy than it ought to, while several indoor or nighttime scenes suffer from weak contrast and black levels. Additionally, there's a fair amount of dirt and debris on display, as well as other damage marks and faint color fluctuations. Either way, what's here is mostly good enough if you keep your expectations in check, but there's definitely some room for improvement.

NOTE: The promotional images featured on this page are strictly decorative and do not represent the title under review.

The DTS-HD Master Audio mix splits The Challenge's original one-channel audio into a 2.0 spread with relatively clear dialogue and sound effects. Though limited by its source material (not to mention the heavy accents of several English-speaking Japanese cast members), this is still a competent presentation that I'm glad wasn't given a faux-surround remix. The dynamic range is decent enough under the circumstances and Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score makes its presence known without fighting for attention, but a handful of volume fluctuations might have you reaching for the remote every so often. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or captions are included (although a few Japanese lines include burnt-in subs), which makes a few scenes tough to decipher the first time through.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The basic interface includes separate options for playback and chapter selection (there are 8), with relatively quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes poster-themed artwork; no insert, slipcover, or Bonus Features are included, which is disappointing.

Final Thoughts

With its solid cast, intriguing locale, and a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, it's a shame that John Frankenheimer's The Challenge has been forgotten during the last 30+ years (the lack of a Region 1 DVD certainly didn't help, though). It's a fairly solid film that, although slightly less than the sum of its parts, offers terrific action and a great atmosphere even when the story and pace falter a bit. Mifune fans will get their money's worth, as the legendary leading man turns in a great performance and doesn't play second fiddle to Scott Glenn's boxer-turned-swordsman. Either way, it's a hidden gem and that's what will draw most folks to Kino's Blu-ray: even with room for improvement in the A/V department and a lack of extras, it's great to finally have on disc. Perhaps not the most enticing blind buy around (especially for the price), but fans of the cast and crew should enjoy themselves. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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