Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
Dir. by Guy Hamilton
Starring Fred Ward, Wilford Brimley, Joel Grey and Kate Mulgrew
A New York cop is recruited against his will for the secret spy organization CURE. His death having been faked, he is given the new identity of “Remo Williams,” and is sent to train with a Korean martial arts expert so that he can become an assassin for the government. However, his training is cut short when the schemes of a corrupt arms manufacturer threaten to reveal CURE’s existence.
This is another of the movies (we had a good hundred or so) that my parents had taped off of TV sometime in the late 80s/early 90s. I remember watching it many times, and enjoying the action and the humorous character of Chiun. It was unavailable on DVD for forever, so I probably hadn’t seen it in at least a decade, though I know we had that VHS tape up until we got rid of our entire VHS collection in the late 2000s.
Remo Williams really wants to be an American James Bond movie. It was directed by Guy Hamilton, who’d helmed four of the Bond films (including Goldfinger), and was based on a popular series of pulp spy novels, much like Ian Fleming’s. It features fistfights, shootouts, martial arts, infiltrations into secure facilities, and other Bond-like shenanigans. It also features some of the same casual sexism and racism that were hallmarks of the 60s and 70s Bond films (more on both of these later). However, despite all of this, it doesn’t quite come together as the exciting adventure film that it clearly was trying to be.
For the most part, I’m going to have to fault Hamilton. The film is shot and edited like the early 70s Bond films that he’d worked on previously, and it’s clearly behind the times. This movie came out four years after Raiders of the Lost Ark and only two years before Lethal Weapon, and yet its style seems antiquated compared to both of those movies. Fred Ward, though a good enough actor (I still love him in Tremors, which we’ll get to eventually), can’t quite pull off the action scenes convincingly. It probably doesn’t help matters that he looks a lot like my childhood Tae Kwon Do instructor, former professional kickboxer Kerry Roop, and clearly can’t do moves like he could. And most of the big set pieces, with one exception, end rather anti-climactically.
That exception is the one really good sequence from the movie, the fight between Williams and a trio of construction workers on the Statue of Liberty. During the mid-80s, the statue underwent a two-year restoration project, and was covered with scaffolding. While nowhere near the level of something that Jackie Chan would have come up with, this scaffolding was still effectively used for a precarious fight in and around the statue. However, even this scene is undercut slightly by having his opponents be a bunch of blue collar guys who’d been paid off to stage an “accident”, and who clearly have no combat background. If the movie wants us to take Williams seriously as an assassin, it needs to give him credible threats to go up against. It’s like they made a movie out of the tutorial part of a video game.
The movie also isn’t quite sure what to do with its Bond Girl, an Army officer played by a very young Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager fame. First, she’s only in the movie for maybe twenty minutes tops, disappearing for almost an hour after she’s first introduced. Second, it can’t decide what sort of character it wants her to be. Her first two scenes have her verbally shooting down two male officers who are sexist and condescending to her with remarkable speed and wit. Later, however, she blunders right into an obvious trap, only surviving because of Williams’s intervention, and ends up tagging along with him for the rest of the movie without providing much in the way of value besides commenting on his and his mentor’s shared sexism towards her.
Speaking of his mentor, why do I keep picking movies with extremely glaring whitewashing? Once again we have a white actor playing an Asian character in yellowface. At least this time it’s the Oscar-winning actor Joel Grey instead of an acting newbie (though you could also argue that he should have known better). His character of Chiun is a walking bundle of Asian martial artist clichés, down to the terrible accent and fortune-cookie wisdom – something that Williams even calls him out on in a rare moment of lampshade hanging for the film.
Granted, it IS fun watching the arrogant, openly racist Williams get his ass handed to him in their first meeting, and then repeatedly throughout their training. I also can’t tell how much of their interactions are meant to be serious teachings, and how much of it is simply Chiun trolling his trainee (something that he openly and admittedly engages in at numerous times over the course of the movie). Grey was actually nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, something that I have to chalk up to afterglow from the previous year’s Globe and Oscar nominations for Pat Morita in his similar role as Mr. Miyagi.
Now, all of that being said, I think that the core idea of this movie does have something there. If done better, it probably could have ended up as something similar to the first Kingsman movie, which made my Top 10 for the year when it came out. There’s supposed to be a Shane Black-helmed reboot in the works, and I would love to see someone like Donnie Yen take on the role of Chiun. Until then, however, I don’t really feel the need to revisit this one again.
-While the scenes surrounding them weren’t all that great, there were two moments from the setpieces that I’d like to single out. First, the incredulous reaction that Williams has when the guard dogs chasing him during his break-in at Grove Industries team up to lower a metal fire escape so they can continue following him.
-Second, the only moment that really felt like the inventiveness of the Bond franchise, when he escapes from a trap in a military gasmask-testing chamber by using the henchman’s diamond tooth stud as a glass cutter to break the bullet-proof observation window.