The Challenge

the_challenge1982A down on his luck boxer who needs a big score to get himself back on his feet is the plot to about 1,000 genre films from the 40s to the 60s. In The Challenge, the challenge as it were was to do something different with this trope.

In the case of this 1982 John Frankenheimer actioner, it’s a gig escorting a rare family heirloom from Los Angeles to Kyoto, Japan.

The piece in question, a samurai sword, was exchanged for a pack of smokes in World War II, and an enterprising GI brought it to LA. Its rightful owners want it back and the scion of the family, wheelchair-bound Toshio, hires a washed up California prizefighter to be its keeper.

Wearing the gloves is Scott Glenn as rugged Murphy, lured by the (still) impressive sum of $500/day, to smuggle the weapon in a golf bag through customs.

Unfortunately, the sword is not the genuine article. It’s a set up.

Others have their eyes on the prize, including Toshio’s evil uncle, Hideo, a business big-wig with a sprawling corporate compound that’d shame Facebook headquarters, featuring a slot where an ancient samurai sword should be…uh…slotted?

By this point, Hideo’s fully Americanized henchman Ando has unceremoniously tossed Toshio head over wheels out the back of a moving van and is threatening to kill Murphy if he doesn’t provide details about the weapon’s whereabouts.

But damned if he knows.

Turns out finding the real sword involves infiltrating a samurai school, run by none other than the legendary Toshiro Mifune as Toru Yoshida.

Where do Murphy’s loyalties lie? Does he bow to goon pressure and swipe the sword?

Co-written by John Sayles, the man behind three of our site faves, Piranha, The Howling and Alligator, The Challenge is fairly engaging stuff. Sayles keeps things moving at a nice pace, introducing lug Murphy to the decorous, simple pleasures of Japanese dojo life (we imagine Steven Seagal* enjoying this too for a bit, before that gave way to the pleasures of the Japanese buffet).

And in The Challenge, Murphy is, of course, bested by some righteous black belt artistry and demands that he be trained in the deadly arts before being swayed by the ways of the samurai.

And after being thrown out of the temple, he has to prove himself to get back in their good graces by withstanding burial up to the neck with no food nor drink for days.

The Challenge is by no means a classic, but does feature some kick-butt kendo, and some kyudo (Japanese archery).

*** (out of 5)

[Editors’ note: the movie is also notable for something else: aikido choreography by the bloated ponytail himself, then billed as “Steve” Seagal.

Above the Law

AbovethelawIn Above the Law, Steven Seagal had yet to really grow into his pony tail, understandable as this was his debut.

And speaking of growth, he stars here as Nico, the world’s tallest Sicilian. He’s a Chicago cop from Palermo whom we’re introduced to by way of the war in Vietnam, and what else a but martial arts montage of epically 80s proportions where we get to hear him speak Japanese.

Flash forward to a 1988 christening and Seagal’s breaking language barriers again by showcasing his Italian in a big church and venturing over to a mandolin-infused party straight out of The Godfather.

More importantly, in Above the Law, we get our first glimpse of Seagal in the profession we’ve come to love him in in countless subsequent roles: an ex CIA man. If you were to put Seagal in King Lear, he’d be a monarch father to three daughters (and an ex CIA man).

On the Chicago PD, Nico is on the trail of a Salvadoran drug dealer. After he’s busted, they find more than they bargained for – explosives. And in an odd turn of events, the guy’s linked to a corrupt Vietnam military official Nico served with, who’s also CIA.

Nico’s partner on the force is the formidable Pam Grier as “Jacks” Jackson, and their banter here is a delight (“What is it about this place you don’t like? The element!”). It’s easy to forget that before the 2000s, Seagal was actually quick with his tongue before he began drawling ersatz Cajun* as authentic as Popeyes Louisiana Chicken.

above-the-law_SeagalMore importantly though, he’s quick with his moves.

Above the Law features a lean, very mean Steve S. in a monumental bar fight, not as good as the one in Out for Justice (“Are you da boxa?”), but pretty darn exceptional, where he whips the butt of every guinea unibrow in the Windy City.

Later, he dispenses with a bunch of Chicano stereotypes in inimitable fashion.

A fellow cop derides his “martial arts hero, chop suey crap,” but this is the man at his finest.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Ron Dean as a Chicago detective. He’s known as the tough-as-nails dad to Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club.

Top-drawer Seagal.

***3/4 (out of 5)

[*Check out our latter day Steven Seagal movies discussion on the Really Awful Movies Podcast!]