Few movie titles are more ironic than “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…”, which incorrectly assumed there would be many more films to follow. Truth be told, there should have been more, as this franchise-to-be was unique and had a lot of promise. The ongoing assignments of CURE agent Remo Williams and his sensei, Chiun, the “Master of Sinanju”, had the potential to be an American James Bond. Instead, the film flopped outright during its brief run in 1985 and has not surprisingly become a cult favorite. When your hero can dodge bullets, walk on water and battle hired killers atop the Statue of Liberty, a cult following is a given.
Fred Ward stars as a top cop who is murdered, resuscitated, given cosmetic surgery and “hired” by a top secret organization (in the same way La Femme Nikita is “recruited” against her will to join Section One). Before he becomes their go to secret agent, he must endure rigorous training by an elderly but dangerous man named Chiun, played by Joel Grey under pounds of impressive make-up. Remo’s trial by fire is surviving an attempt on his life by a group of construction workers who bought off and oddly enthusiastic about becoming killers for hire. This leads to the scene where the hero leaps all over the Statue of Liberty, a sensational, special effects-free sequence that is just one of the awesome showcases for incredible stunt work on hand. “Remo Williams” is based on “The Destroyer” book series by Warren Murphy and Randy Sapir and is as fittingly gritty, silly and contrived as the books it’s based on.
The movie is kind of a blue-collar “The Matrix” or a 007 origin film set in the U.S. but it has the excitement, cheeky sensibility, and emphasis on spectacle that mark the Bond films of its era. In fact, Guy Hamilton, the film’s director, is the man responsible for “Goldfinger” and three other James Bond thrillers. “Remo Williams” is kind of clunky as a comedy, as the jokes are cornier than necessary but as an action thriller, it delivers and is wonderfully over-the-top. It was likely too much in the 80’s but today, this would work in the time of comic book origin movies springing up every few months. In fact, with schmuck-turned-killer films like “Lucy” and “Wanted” remaining ever popular, “Remo Williams” was clearly ahead of its time.
Craig Safan’s exciting, cheerful and deliciously cheesy 80’s score is so perfect, it’s hard to imagine the title character having any other fanfare. Casting ace character actor Patrick Kilpatrick as a bad guy with a diamond-studded tooth leads to one of the more memorable moments in a movie overstuffed with delightfully outlandish bits. Ward is a fine actor, though he doesn’t entirely nail his character. His take on Remo is overly broad, as though someone told him this was a comic book movie and followed suit.
The film’s saving grace is Grey, who powers the movie with his Yoda-like character and steals the show as ably as Pat Morita did the year before in “The Karate Kid.” The casting of Grey, a Caucasian, as an ancient Korean martial arts master, angered many. I cried foul when Halle Berry and others wore make-up to play Korean characters in “Cloud Atlas” but I’m giving Grey a pass here for a simple reason: the character is noble, smart and wonderful. Grey doesn’t create an insulting caricature, but a man both cunning and fatherly. I’m sensitive to racial stereotyping in movies but Grey is using his voice and physicality to give tribute to a character who’s a warrior and a teacher, not a fool. The make-up received an Oscar nomination but its Grey’s performance, no matter how controversial, that deserved the award consideration.
Over the years, when I’d talk to movie buffs about their favorite action movies, “Remo Williams” would constantly come up as a sort of secret handshake among fans. It’s quaint, dated and corny, in the way any movie made 30 years ago is. It remains a solid, under-looked entry in the action/adventure genre for a very big reason: those stunt man and women risked their lives, put themselves in great danger and pulled off wondrous feats for our entertainment. The movie isn’t art but, man alive, it’s a lot of fun.