Essentially a sci-fi spin on the ’60s war flick Hell in the Pacific, this offbeat TV movie proceeds from the outlandish premise that the U.S. and a small Asian nation would agree to settle their differences by sending one soldier from each country to fight on a remote island, with the survivor claiming victory. The plot begins when an experimental U.S. satellite, capable of launching nuclear-missile strikes from space, crashes into the international waters of the Pacific. A battleship from the unnamed Asian nation recovers the satellite, but then U.S. forces establish a blockade preventing the battleship from leaving with its prize. To resolve the conflict, the countries send two heavily armed “surrogates” into battle.
Improbably, the U.S. recruits an unpredictable maverick, court-martialed Vietnam veteran-turned-mercenary Jacob Gallery (Darren McGavin), instead of the logical candidate, patriotic commando Bryant (Sam Elliott). This decision, authorized by top-level government operative Overman (James Whitmore), understandably grates hard-nosed General Meyers (Broderick Crawford). Nonetheless, Bryant and Meyers sit on the sidelines while Gallery treks to the island for a series of machine-gun shoot-outs with his opposite number, Yuro (played by durable character actor Mako).
The Challenge, originally broadcast at 74 minutes and later expanded to 90 minutes for cable exhibition, features several exciting scenes of jungle combat, showcasing each combatant’s inventive guerilla techniques. (Gallery poisons the island’s fresh-water supplies and booby-traps the huts in an abandoned village, while Yuro employs similar tactics.) By the time the warriors reach their final confrontation a week after their fight started, they’re dehydrated, delusional, and wounded. Making matters worse, their respective governments covertly send backup soldiers onto the island.
Despite its iffy concept and rudimentary execution, and notwithstanding the unnecessary flashbacks that dilute key moments, The Challenge is a fun ride from its disorienting opening to its bummer denouement. Accordingly, it’s odd that rank-and-file TV director George McGowan took his name off the picture and replaced it with the Directors Guild alias “Alan Smithee.” The Challenge isn’t great, but with McGavin’s enjoyably florid performance and an abundance of credible action, it’s respectable escapism.
The Challenge: FUNKY