"Mortal Challenge" (more aptly known as "Death Game") is one of the first R-rated movies I had ever seen when it was released. Its title immediately reminds anyone of Mortal Kombat from a year earlier, but the only things those two have in common are a techno-based soundtrack (including a theme song that "Challenge" all but plagiarized from "Kombat") and a bit of hand-to-hand fighting. You see, what we have here is a slasher movie that's been dressed up to look like a martial arts adventure, but it's pretty easy to see through the façade - a façade that also fails to hide what a really lousy film this is. For all the B-grade performers involved, I was really hoping for more.
The story: in a Los Angeles torn apart by natural disaster, a seasoned detective (Timothy Bottoms, The Last Picture Show) is sent to investigate the disappearances of local teenagers. His inspection leads him and the members of a young street gang to be kidnapped as well and forced to partake in the "Death Game" of an evil kingpin (David McCallum, NCIS) wherein they must run for their lives through a subterranean maze while contending with deadly traps and deadlier enforcers.
The cast includes Nicholas Hill (Bloodsport 2), Vince Murdocco (Kickboxer 2), Lauro Chartrand (Ninja Turtles: Next Mutation), Evan Lurie (Hologram Man), Richard Faraci (Timecop), and Darren Scott (The Man with the Iron Fists); and even with this collection of martial talent, the movie only manages barely a half-dozen of mostly-bad fights. Part of this is due to the utilization of certain characters, but mostly it's just plain bad action design and the fact that the brawls aren't meant to be the highlight of the show. Still shots from the Faraci-Scott fight dominate the front and back DVD covers, even though the fight itself is only a minute long and sets a standard for poor pacing with a disappointing finish. Many of the guys have cool kicks to show, but there's just no enthusiasm to most of the battles.
Even if you disagree with my slasher movie deduction, you have to admit there are a great deal of parallels between the subgenre and this film: the victims are mainly all attractive, young, and occasionally unlikeable and illogical characters who frequently get naked, are being stalked by a soulless killer (Evan Lurie as a cyborg), and often have to endure truly senseless deaths (e.g. what's the reaction of Nick Hill's character to seeing his girlfriend dangling over a pit of acid? - throw a knife at her so she falls all the faster, because "I'm gonna survive, man!"). It's that last factor that really makes me dislike the film: it's just mean-spirited, treating its characters with the most callous expendability without any payoff. Yuck.
Production-wise, the movie remains beleaguered: the poor audio might be due to a faulty VHS transfer, but the picture quality is washed-out and makes the film look like it was shot in the early '80s. It's not really interesting to look at to begin with, though, as there's no end to the grey industrial style of the underground setting. Succinctly, it's pretty easy to tell that director Randy Cheveldave had never helmed a movie before. Roger Corman's definitely produced better. I heartily recommend that you leave this made-for-TV disaster to collect dust like it ought to.