East meets WEST

With all the PC flap about Matt Damon saving the Chinese in The Great Wall and Scarlett Johansson saving the Japanese in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell, I was pleased to see the recent video drop of two earlier films (decades old now) with Hollywood stars doing much the same without ridiculous backlash. And doing it with style, I might add.

In The Yakuza (1974), Sydney Pollack (Tootsie,Out of Africa) directed Robert Mitchum battling the titular Japanese crime syndicate; The Challenge (1982), helmed by John Frankenheimer (The Train, The Manchurian Candidate) put Scott Glenn (Silverado) in his first starring role, wielding a samurai sword. In addition to the novelty of the settings, the lauded directors and solid action scenes (graphic at the time), both films have serious writing creds—Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Robert Towne (Chinatown) for The Yakuza, and John Sayles (Lone Star) for The Challenge.

The older and better of the two, The Yakuza is a complex story about honor and vengeance. Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, kind of a private investigator, hired by old war buddy Tanner (Brian Keith) to settle a financial dispute with the Yakuza in Japan. The journey reunites Harry with an ex-flame, from the occupation after WWII, whose brother Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura) owes Harry a debt of honor.

Without tipping plot details (which add depth and motivation), Harry and Tanaka take on the bad guys in several sustained action sequences. Harry’s weapons of choice are a .45 and a shotgun; Ken (a man out of time even in his own culture) prefers the sword. For the time, The Yakuza was quite violent; even now it could be seen as more “realistic” than current action fests like the John Wick and Taken flicks.

In his late 50s at the time of shooting, Robert Mitchum still exudes the charisma and appeal of a Hollywood tough-guy hunk, a true star as well as one of the most underrated actors of his time. His turn in The Yakuza seems effortless, but it’s rather nuanced, due to his appearance, movement and delivery. Same goes for Ken (Japan’s ’70s box-office champ) though his mien as The Man Who Never Smiles makes him seem one-dimensional next to Mitchum.

Richard Jordan has a nice supporting role as Dusty, a protégé of sorts to Harry. Starting as a brash young hoodlum, he learns to respect the feudal codes of honor guiding Tanaka and Harry. His character shows the depth of conflicts between cultures and individuals; it’s a substantive part of the film. The Yakuza is more than just an action flick.

The Challenge, while claiming to also deal with serious conflicts, is a good popcorn martial arts movie. Co-written by Richard Maxwell and John Sayles, it’s about two Japanese brothers warring over two ancestral swords. Yoshida (Toshiro Mifune) is a traditionalist, steeped in old codes and old weapons. Hideo (Atsuo Nakamura) is an industrialist villain whose thugs carry submachines.

Into the feud, which goes back to WWII, comes Rick (Scott Glenn), a boorish boxer who gets into the mess unaware, strictly for the money. In time, he learns to respect Yoshida and his clan of martial arts trainees. After undergoing appalling gastronomical tests (eating live lobsters) and grueling expiatory trials (buried up to his neck for five days), Rick becomes the old samurai’s all-but-adopted son, sort of like the Karate Kid to Mr. Miyagi.

In the end, the two assault the nasty villain’s industrial fortress, Yoshida armed only with a bow and arrows and trusty sword. Rick sticks to guns until the showdown, when he proves worthy of his training with Yoshida’s impressive pig-sticker.

The major draw of The Challenge is the great Mifune who, until the exciting finale, gives way to newcomer Glenn. Though Glenn was a great villain in Urban Cowboy (which made his career) and became a terrific action star later, he’s awkward and stiff here. He isn’t helped by an often-sentimental script and a goofy romantic subplot. Yet he does do well in the action scenes, particularly in the finale’s full frontal assault.

If you’re sick of all the grousing about political correctness, return to the days of yesteryear—by way of The Yakuza and The Challenge—when no one cared as long as the movies were good.