Based on The Destroyer pulp paperback series, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was a film that Orion Pictures had hoped would spawn a new action film franchise, not only did they hire James Bond writer Christopher Wood to pen the script but they also brought in Bond director Guy Hamilton to helm the project, so it’s pretty clear that they were hoping to create an All-American blue-collar Bond, sadly, that didn’t quite happen.
The movie opens with New York City Street cop officer Sam Merkin (Fred Ward) being lured into a trap, by what he thinks is a group of run-of-the-mill street thugs, but after a brief fight, his police car is eventually pushed into the East River and he is then “rescued” by a pair of scuba divers. Turns out he has been unwillingly recruited by a secret United States organization called CURE and he’s not given any of that “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” tripe from Mission Impossible because he’s actually told that either he accepts the job or he will become an actual corpse. This is a hiring tactic I don’t see working all that well as it would tend to make the prospective employee a little peevish towards his employers, or at least result in a strongly worded letter to HR.
CURE was apparently set up during the Kennedy administration but for a black ops organization it’s pretty thin and basically consists of Agent Conn “Mac” MacCleary (J.A. Preston), he was the one who pushed our hero into the East River and gave him that “Join or die” speech, and then there is the “Man in the Chair” character of Director Harold W. Smith (Wilford Brimley) who explains to our hero, who has been given the new identity of Remo Williams, that his job is to perform surgical assassinations of corrupt individuals who are ruining America. This makes Remo Williams a cross between James Bond and the Punisher only instead of his motivations being patriotic or revenge-fueled he’s been pressganged into the job against his will. Does that sound like the kind of organization you’d want to work for? But Smith and MacCleary aren’t simply going to send Remo out into the world unprepared so he is given into the care of a Korean martial arts named Chiun (Joel Grey) a man is skilled in the art of Sinanju – a made up fighting style that allows the user to dodge bullets as if he were Neo from The Matrix – and much of this pertains to Remo’s training, which consists mostly of Chiun berating Remo for being a dumb American ox.
Now, about the casting of Joel Grey and an Asian character, producer Larry Spiegel claimed that “We assumed, of course, that we would be using an oriental actor. We couldn’t find one and then I thought of Grey.” Sorry, but I have to call bullshit here because as good as Grey is as an actor, I can’t believe they couldn’t find a single Asian actor to play the part. I’ll grant it that Carl Fullerton, the film’s make-up artist, did a fantastic job turning Joel Grey into an 80-year-old Korean, and he was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for his troubles, but I can’t help but wonder what this movie would have been like if they cast someone like James Hong for the role, who provided an amazing performance as the villain in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, a film that was released just a year after this film. What is even more depressing is that when they tried to turn Remo Williams into a television show they went with Roddy McDowall as Chiun, seriously, how much cocaine was snorted in the 80s?
Even though the bulk of the film deals with Remo’s training there is sort of a plot dealing with an evil weapons manufacturer named George Grove (Charles Cioffi), who has been scamming the American military out of billions of dollars for a Star Wars weapon system that doesn’t actually exist, and with cheap guns that explode in the user’s face. Remo is tasked with bringing this bastard down and this is where he comes in contact with Major Rayner Fleming (Kate Mulgrew), who has been questioning the results or lack thereof, from Grove’s company. Sadly, this character is about as useful as an enflamed appendix and provides no real impetus to the plot. While watching this film I got the impression the producers realized that had no female characters and just plugged her into the script, in fact, much of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins feels like a collection of parts rather than a whole film, with the training sequences and the corrupt weapons manufacturer plotline seeming to come from two different movies. What confuses me is that if Smith was sure Grove was guilty why worry about Remo investigating further? Just kill the asshat and move on to the next threat to America, it’s not like anything they do will need to survive a court of law, and sure, his training is interrupted by some rent-a-thugs sent by Grove, which gives us the film’s action centrepiece on the Statue of Liberty, but it’s a scene that belongs in a better movie.
During all of this “action” Remo learns that if CURE is ever in danger of exposure all members would have to kill themselves, with Chiun contractually obligated to kill Remo if necessary. Is that badass or stupid and I’m kind of leaning toward stupid. When Smith says that they’ll “Have to disappear” you’d think such a super covert operation would have better ways of vanishing their employees other than committing group suicide, it’s as if they were members of a stupid cult and not an intelligence agency. That this “organization” consists of only three bloody members makes this even more ridiculous and we never get a sense of what CURE really is, this is a major failing on the script side of things as we never get a sense of the scope of the organization other than a few tossed-off mentions of a couple of assassinations they’d orchestrated over the years but what we see on screen is pretty threadbare and cheap.
Where the film really drops the ball is in the category of villains because a corrupt manufacturer of shoddy weapons doesn’t come across as all that interesting, in fact, we already saw an evil arms manufacturer in The Concorde…Airport ’79 with Robert Vaughn and it was just as lame there as it was here. For this kind of project to work the character of Remo Williams needs colourful villains, such as those found in the Bond Franchise, but Charles Cioffi as George Grove was so far down the spectrum of memorable villains that while writing this review I’ve pretty much forgotten everything about his character, oh wait, there was actually nothing to forget as the writers didn’t even bother to flesh out the character or even give him anything notable to do. What is quite surprising is that the screenplay didn’t even allow the villain and hero to meet until the film’s “exciting” conclusion and thus we don’t get any of the classic verbal sparring matches that one would expect from a film of this genre.
• The plastic surgery to change Fred Ward’s cop into Remo Williams looked more like they just removed his fake moustache.
• Remo is told that this organization consists only of Director Harold W. Smith, Agent Conn “Mac” MacCleary and Remo, so who were the men who ambushed him and got him out of the sinking car? Were they freelancers, and where does Chiun fit into this organization?
• MacCleary seems shocked when Chiun tells him that Remo’s training will take about fifteen years, which is strange as this is something you’d assume would have come up when CURE hired Chiun.
• No explanation is given as to how the villains knew Remo Williams would be at the Statue of Liberty, they didn’t even know who he was or where he came from. Did someone give them a copy of the script?
• The Dobermans in this movie put Airbud to shame as they were not only smart enough to outmaneuver Remo but when one of them even navigates a tightrope, in a scene that went from cute to stupid rather quickly.
• The military is ordered to apprehend the intruders and to use deadly force only if fired upon, but in the very next scene, they are shelling the crap out of the area in an attempt to kill Remo. Do they not understand what constitutes deadly force?
The Destroyer books by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir were fun pulp men’s adventure stories that took a satirical look at political corruption, that then tossed in a liberal helping of extreme violence to balance the lampooning of modern politics, sadly, none of that is to be found in this film adaptations, and as fun as Fred Ward’s depiction of Remo was it’s a very watered-down version of what was found in the pulpy pages of the novels, and those stories certainly deserved a lot more than this film’s PG-13 levels of action and violence.
Say what you will about the problematic casting of Joel Grey as an Asian martial arts master he was quite good in the part, and Fred Ward aptly pulled off the action required for the role, unfortunately, they completely wasted Kate Mulgrew in the thankless part of a damsel in distress in what could have easily been turned into a strong and capable partner to Remo, instead, what we ended up with was a character that was almost as forgettable as the villain. If Orion Pictures had invested a little more time and money on the script and gone a bit more over-the-top with the violence this could have been the beginning of a fun franchise, but as something that came out the same years as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando, it was pretty much doomed to be, at best, something that could develop a cult following over the years.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
Movie Rank - 6/10
This film may have been called Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins but I’d say it qualifies more as a false start rather than a beginning because aside from one cool action sequence there isn’t much to offer fans, even those that can overlook a Caucasian actor in yellowface, and it certainly didn’t capture the feel of The Destroyer books.