When I was in college, I went through a very serious John Sayles phase. I started watching his movies like THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, THE SEACAUCUS 7 (which was pretty hard to find at the time) and MATEWAN. I took my parents to see LONE STAR in the theater when it came out. Sayles hooked me right away and I started to dig deeper. I discovered he had done a lot of screenwriting work for Roger Corman on movies like PIRANHA, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and THE LADY IN RED. He'd also worked on THE HOWLING and ALLIGATOR. This was simply fascinating to me as I loved his writer/director work as well as his genre work. He was clever with his genre scripts and would do things like naming characters in THE HOWLING after directors who had made werewolf movies. One of the last of his screenwriting credits I was able to track down was THE CHALLENGE. It was a film I had been unaware of despite John Frankenheimer having directed it and me being a big fan of his work. I also loved both Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune so when I saw that all these folks had been involved in the same movie I was immediately excited to watch it. This was the days of VHS and THE CHALLENGE was a tricky movie to track down back then. I think I ended up ordering it from a VHS club like Columbia House or something. When it arrived in its lovely CBS/Fox packaging, I couldn't wait to give it a look. The box art made it look like a G.I. JOE cartoon and the kid in me was made immediately giddy for a possible live-action movie in that vein. What I got was a little different but nonetheless a good watch. John Sayles shared his 'written by' credit with screenwriter Richard Maxwell (who had done Wes Craven's THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW), so it may not have been a "pure Sayles-ian" script. It was a neat movie though and just what I was hoping for at the time. It follows a past-his-prime boxer from California to Japan where he has been tasked with bringing a very special sword (a family heirloom) into the country. What he doesn't realize is that involving himself with the sword will end up putting him right in the middle of a decades-long feud between two brothers. One of the brothers (Toshiro Mifune) runs a martial arts training school. The boxer is initially a complete oaf about all the customs of the folks he is visiting but eventually takes up training with them and gets caught up in the conflict to protect the sword. It's a fun little adventure/samurai movie with touches of Kurosawa perhaps peppered throughout (the biggest of which is the casting of Mifune of course). Fans of movies like REMO WILLIAMS will certainly dig this one as it also features a brash american learning the ways of martial arts and becoming kind of a badass. It has a raucous siege/attack climax at the end that totally makes it worthwhile. Jerry Goldsmith does the music which is very nice as well. THE CHALLENGE has never seen much in the way of home video releases since that initial VHS tape I acquired back in the mid 1990s. It never came to DVD, so it has sort of disappeared into obscurity since that time. This Blu-ray looks nice - it's a welcome upgrade and will hopefully bring the film into greater prominence as the 80s action gem it could have been.
THE CHALLENGE can be purchased on Blu-ray here:
COP (1988; James B. Harris)
If the name James B. Harris doesn't ring any bells with you, it should. He was Stanley Kubrick's producer on such classics as THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY and LOLITA. If that wasn't enough, he's a solid director in his own right with movies like SOME CALL IT LOVING (which just recently made it's Blu-ray debut last year) and FAST-WALKING. FAST-WALKING is a great little flick (also starring James Woods as COP does) that you should really look into as soon as possible (Warner Archive put it out on DVD). COP is another movie I'd not caught up with since VHS, but I do recall it being a decent-sized deal right around the time I was becoming a serious video store junkie in early high school. I've always been a James Woods fan so it's funny, but I actually remember him a little better (in terms of cop roles) from the guy he plays in THE HARD WAY with Michael J. Fox. Fox is a hotshot actor studying up for a role in that movie and Woods is the grizzled veteran detective that's been assigned to help him a feel for what it's like to really work with the police. I always felt like he was kind of playing off of his character in COP for that movie and I still think so after seeing the movie again.
Woods is excellent here and you really get a sense of the dude he's playing when we see him pay his daughter a visit before bed and tells her a "bedtime story" which is actually a somewhat graphic recounting of one of his prior investigations. He lives, eats and (doesn't) sleep his cases and this can be problematic with his home life. He's serious about what he does though and he's good at it so he fulfills one of those cinematic ideals that will keep most people engage with a movie. Woods is really one of the great actors in my opinion and though I do feel he gets some appreciation in the present day, I do feel that we will one day speak of him in terms of legends - he is just that good. Woods is just one of those actors that inhabits this kind of role so perfectly in that he has a remarkable duality about him. He can play a really scummy guy (and his cop here is by no means a boy scout) but he also has this fierce intelligence and charisma that make him so likeable and watchable. Detectives in this kind of movie feel most authentic when they are just a badge and a desk away from being a criminal themselves. It's also enjoyable to watch a procedural that is now almost thirty years old and calls for the police work to be done pre-internet. There's something quite alluring about viewing watching the gears churning in Woods' head as he tries to work things out based on his old-style research. Few actors are as interesting to watch when they are smoking a cigarette and thinking (and he does quite a bit of that in this film). The way Woods plays the obsessive nature of this guy really draws you in and makes you want him to solve his murder case all the more, but wonder if he might be losing his mind in the process. It's one of those "descent into madness?" kind of films and Woods is just the right guy for the job. Oh and I forgot to mention that this is an adaptation of a James Ellroy novel (his book Blood on The Moon), so it's not surprising it goes to some darker places. Also, watch for Charles Durning and Lesley Ann Warren in smaller, but pivotal roles.
This Kino Blu-ray also comes with an insightful new audio commentary from director James B. Harris. Since he is also the screenwriter and producer on this, he has a breadth of knowledge on the production and it's a solid track. He's a very intelligent gentleman and it comes through. The track is also moderated by filmmaker Elijah Drenner and he tends to bring out some good stuff in the commentaries he's been a part of.