I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

tn_remobtisl“Computer said you were a smartass.”

You know what’s great about movies? Any of us who are reading this who are currently alive were born some time after they were invented. They got a head start on us, and no matter how hard we try we’ll never catch up with all the good ones that already exist. It’s just a beautiful thing to realize that even now there are movies out there as perfectly tuned for me as REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Thank you, Lord. Good work on that one.

One reason it’s great: it’s an action vehicle for Fred Ward. He’s been a great utility player in SOUTHERN COMFORT, UNCOMMON VALOR, TREMORS, etc. but even playing the lead in the great MIAMI BLUES he has to compete with scene-stealing villain Alec Baldwin. Here he’s the main attraction from beginning to end. It glorifies him as a fit badass in his 40s, and it shares his dry sense of humor.

We first meet him as a tough but lazy cop (with mustache) sitting in his patrol car eating a burger and drinking coffee, being hassled over the radio about gambling money he owes. When some dude gets chased right past him he doesn’t react at first. It doesn’t seem like he’s even gonna bother to intervene.

mp_remobBut he does, and it’s a set up, and the next thing you know a secret organization have kidnapped him, faked his death, changed his name, shaved his mustache, given him plastic surgery, renamed him from an engraving on his bedpan and are ready to train him to become their new assassin who will take out horrible people that the broken system is unable to deal with. Awfully presumptuous of them, but over time he comes to understand their point of view and see the value of participating.

The organization is very small. There’s a boss (Wilford Brimley!) who pretty much knows everything because of his circa 1986 super computer, and a weathered enforcer (J.A. Preston), and they bring Remo to Chiun (Joel Grey) who’s like Pai Mei in KILL BILL VOLUME 2. He’s a mean old Korean guy who specializes in dodging bullets (photographic documentation below) and will teach Remo an ancient Korean art that pretty much amounts to super powers. Remo reacts with Fred Ward cynicism, until of course he starts to see results. It’s largely a training movie with a bunch of great lessons, the best being when he demonstrates impossible parkour skills balancing and jumping across various precariously balanced objects in his apartment, and when he somehow pulls it off Chiun is totally unimpressed.

Meanwhile there’s corruption going on in the military, a scumbag general pushing dangerously defective guns on the troops for his own profiteering purposes. Remo is sent to protect Major Rayner Fleming (Kate Mulgrew), who has gotten too close to the truth, putting him in conflict with a group of thugs. The most colorful is Stone (Patrick Kilpatrick, BEST OF THE BEST II, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY, THE SUBSTITUTE: FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION), who has a diamond on one of his teeth. It seems like just a fun, James Bondian detail but it leads to a great action moment when Remo finds a good use for it. (Okay, I’ll SPOILER it: he grabs him by the head and uses him to cut glass.)

Important bit part: DIE HARD’s own Reginald VelJohnson as “Ambulance Driver.” Remo steals an ambulance to try to escape custody at the hospital, so ol’ Powell gets to do one of those “Hey come back here, that’s my car!” type parts that I’m sure are very fulfilling for actors.

still_remo

I love that this is a movie mainly about climbing on shit! Makes me realize we don’t see nearly enough cinematic climbing on shit. There’s a ton of great stuntwork, including a training scene where he has to hang off a ferris wheel and an elaborate fight climbing on and around the then-scaffolded Statue of Liberty. Sometimes it’s clearly a stuntman, but what are you gonna do. That gives it authenticity.

still_remo4

still_remo6

I guess it makes sense that this was the next-to-last movie from Guy Hamilton, an old school director who did GOLDFINGER, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, LIVE AND LET DIE, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE. Some review I read said that he was behind the times making this movie in 1986, but if so it doesn’t matter in the long run. It’s great lo-fi action occasionally spiced up with Remo’s supernatural-ish abilities (running across the surface of wet cement during a foot chase is a particularly good move).

It has a good sense of humor without being a straight up comedy. There’s definitely jokes about the clashing personalities of the characters, an American who loves greasy hamburgers trying to live with an old man who forces him to eat plain rice. He’s a super spy sneaking around like a teenager trying not to get in trouble.

I could see it as a Kurt Russell movie. The problems Remo runs into in the field seem almost unfair at times. Like when he has to break into a place and it turns out to have the world’s smartest guard dogs, dobermans that actually figure out how to follow him up onto a catwalk and trap him. He always seems exasperated because as soon as he gets cocky some shit like this is likely to happen.

But it’s great when he’s cocky. You all know I’m a connoisseur of the Walking Casually Away From a Fiery Explosion trope. And in all my studies I don’t think I’ve seen a more jaunty strut away from an explosion than Remo has here.

still_remo7

There’s one weird thing about this movie you should be warned about. Chiun is a Korean character but is played by Joel Grey, who in my opinion is a Caucasian. His makeup is real good, definitely better than, say, CLOUD ATLAS (in fact it was nominated for the best makeup Oscar, which it lost to MASK), but it still looks not quite right.

The thing is, I wasn’t there but I bet there were some Korean actors in the business at that time. Maybe one of them coulda done it and it wouldn’t be uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, it’s a really good performance by Grey, good comic timing, grouchy personality and very deliberate movements and posture that could be credited to him being a dancer or whatever he is.

still_remo2

still_remo3

No comment on the accent.

I’d say it’s less offensive than some Ken Jeong characters. Is that a good defense?

REMO WILLIAMS is actually a Dick Clark production, but not a rock ‘n roll movie. It has a great theme song by Craig Safan that reminds me of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or something. Big, majestic and epic music to elevate a down to earth working class super hero who works out of an apartment with an old man who watches soap operas.

Like Hamilton, writer Christopher Wood came from the James Bond series. He wrote THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER. This one is adapted from a novel called The Destroyer by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy. There was a whole series of over a hundred Destroyer novels I guess. Seems like something I should look into. Incidentally Murphy did a draft of LETHAL WEAPON 2 with Shane Black, who has recently been attached to a new Destroyer movie. Also Murphy has two kids with the voice of Bart Simpson. That might be less relevant.

Note 1: If you love this movie and it bums you out that the DVD is full frame, there is an anamorphic widescreen version available in region 2. I think this is it below, but the listing doesn’t specify. Also there’s a Region B blu-ray if you can play that.

Note 2: There was a pilot made for a Remo Williams TV show in ’88. I haven’t watched the whole thing yet because this guy Jeffrey Meek is no Fred Ward, even if he did play Rayden and Shao Khan on Mortal Kombat: Conquest. But let me know if it’s good.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, November 24th, 2014 at 1:17 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

43 Responses to “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins”

  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this one. It’s an all-time favorite of mine and I hate the fact that it never even had a sequel. Oh well, I’m happy with what’s here and I think I’ll throw it on right now. Excellent review, by the way.

  2. Great review. That theme song pops up in my head at the strangest times. As for the books, the first 25 or so are terrifically entertaining, hilariously self-aware pulp, assuming you can get into the proper 70’s exploitation mindset. (More than one villainess in the series gets dispatched by Remo’s ever-developing mystical sex powers.) Chiun rules.

  3. Ahh man this is one of my childhood faves. The combination of the action and the weird sense of humor was really fresh to me at the time. I haven’t rewatched in a long time but I believe my reaction to it will still be one of good will, if only because I have such respect for the idea of a Fred Ward Action Vehicle. One of the best American actors ever, I can’t imagine why Tarantino hasn’t written him a comeback role.

    And yes, Shit Being Climbed is a really underrated type of stunt to watch. I’m always on board for some good climbing scenes.

  4. I love this one forever and always AND I’m super excited about the reboot. So, hooray!

  5. Thanks for this writeup, it’s been one of my favorites since the 80’s. You should definitely check out the books, they are a great combo of action and satire, up to around #65 or so.

  6. As far as the books go, though, keep in mind that they started to creep into the territory of moronic right-wing extremist propaganda at some point. A fairly early point.

    There are paper-thin stand-ins for celebrities and public figures (their version of Oliver Stone was called Hardy Bricker, for fuck’s sake), and Remo kills most of the ones that the authors don’t agree with.

  7. Same as Vern, I saw this (recorded off some random premium movie channel, and the visuals & aspect ratio looked good to me) just a year or two ago for the first time and it made me glad there’s this whole crazy backlog library of ever-surprising, filmatically excellent Movies of Cinema that I’m getting to see one by one years after their initial release and that a lot of them seem designed to cater to my tastes.

    Joel Grey of course is legendary for his role as MC of a certain club of ill repute, but that was happening decades before the REMO WILLIAMS movie, so think about that if you’re not all that impressed by his ability to dodge bullets and his ability to not be impressed by a guy balance-parkouring all over household architecture and American landmarks under construction.

    It’s a little sad that somehow our computers & internets have somehow become less powerful & intuitive since the days of Wilford Brimley’s awesome machine. Kind of like how we couldn’t put guys on the moon today even though we did it in the ’60s.

  8. My only beef with the film was the Statue of Liberty fight, I think, but can’t confirm beat Highlander to using the monument for the planned sword fight finale that was instead shot atop Silvercup Studios. Fred Ward is great, but Russell Mulcahy swooping after Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown through the construction scaffolding would have been epic.

    Also, there is a former marine named Rudy Reyes that people remember from playing himself in Generation Kill. Robert Rodriguez has worked with him as personal trainer and he did some stunts in the last Machete film. Anyway, besides being a living action figure, he could play Fred Ward as a younger man or his son in a film for some director reading this right this right now.

  9. I can attest to the Destroyer books. Good humor and absurd action, but boy the right wing paranoia can be a tough pill to swallow sometimes. Worse the last few that were produced years back in the mid-2000s, it was outdated conservative chariactures. (Case in point, Feminazi judge revealed to be a Soviet Union groupie who loves to free criminals.)

    Still I did enjoy that one book about Remo and Chuin taking out a Big Tobacco executive who found a new addictive killer smoke.

  10. I read that Big Tobacco one. Reno takes on some Moshu Nanren Chinese Assassins as well.

  11. Yup, I like that one too. Good, light hearted, but totally badass fun. And the guard dogs crack me up every time. Too bad that the adventure actually stopped there.

  12. This made me want to re-watch REMO :THE ADVENTURE BEGINS AND ENDS HERE. Too bad it never became a franchise. There has been talk that Shane Black would helm a remake. i would watch that.

  13. Spambot: The Adventure Continues. Anyway, watching REMO for the first time, the asian makeup on an obvious Caucasian struck me as really weird. I mean you certainly wouldn´t do Al Jolson- style “black faces” anymore in the 80´s, but somehow Asian “Yellow Face” (sorry for the lack of a better word) was acceptable.

  14. That guy playing Remo in the tv pilot, I remember him playing a martial arts ninja dude on another action show called RAVEN. I dug the hell out of that show as a kid. Don´t know if it holds up.

  15. Shoot, I can imagine they justified the yellow face with something like “But it is a POSITIVE portrayal!” Also historically speaking, this is a kind of white-people-portraying-different-ethinicities, that was always more accepted than Blackface. I mean, Peter Sellers did this several times and I can’t remember anybody calling him racist for that. (Although of course Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S on the other hand…)

  16. The character of Chiun IS a so called “positive portrayal”, in a “learning from the wisdom of the east” kinda of way. But having an Caucasian in that role says that Asians can´t teach white folks about their own culture, only a white man can by pretending to be Asian.

  17. Love your opening paragraph. That’s how I feel too. There’s already 115 years of cinema before me. I’ll never watch them all. Makes me sad sometimes but the upside is I’ll never run out of discovery.

  18. Hey, I’m not saying it was a right thing to put a white guy into that make up, just that I think the idea behind it was “If anyone asks, we are not making fun of Asians, so it’s okay.”

  19. Shoot, I remember RAVEN from Swedish television. Cool show. There are several episodes on youtube and they seem to hold up. Kind of.

  20. I watched this a while back in 2008, good unpretentious 80’s fun and you gotta love that cheesy theme song, I need to watch it again…

  21. Sinanju! It’s also worth noting that Chung is pretty hardcore racist. It’s treated in an “Oh, grandpa!” way, but I choose to believe a Korean racist being played by a caucasian actor is kind of meta. I firmly remember watching this on VHS and loving every second of it as a kid. I especially loved the theme that’d pick up.

    In addition to the books, here’s at least some large-format black and white comics that are really graphic. Be warned that the movie is very toned down from the books, but it kept the same melody. Was the first time I’d seen a stone block fall on a man, causing his intenstines to bulge from his mouth. There’s a strange ultra-violent yet-sexless tone, least from what I remember.

    I only read a few of the books, but one of them actually takes place with them going undercover on a film production, and even directly mentions/mocks the scene where he’s hanging from the stump as though it’s beneath them. You get the impression he isn’t the biggest fan of the business.

  22. The tv- pilot to REMO doesn´t seem to be all that great. It´s too much of a constant Abbott/Costello routine so I never finished watching it. I think the movie pulled off the bickering between Remo and Chiun better. It wasn´t all out comedy as the TV-pilot try to hammer home

  23. I’ve always stayed away from this film because of the horrible yellow face. Yes, in part because it has troubling racial implications, but also it just sort of weirded me out.

  24. Yellow face racist, sure but still Joel Grey was entertaining.

    Still cracks me up that the one redeemable thing about America for Chuin is the soap opera.

  25. Like with BUCKAROO BANZAI I have a group of friends who just love this movie but for me it was just okay. I rarely even contemplate it when browsing my library for something to watch and if I pass it I’ll usually decide to watch MIAMI BLUES or TREMORS instead. Thinking about it all I can come up with is a lame “not enough OOMPH” it just doesn’t stand out.

    As for Joel Grey people know him for a bunch of things. He’d probably think of himself as a director first; some remember him for a variety of acting roles that often seem tailored for his physicality and Alfred Molina-like questionable ethnicity face from this to ALIAS; others just think of him as Jennifer Grey’s dad. BEULLER???

    I’m glad you found a movie from this era you hadn’t seen before and loved it. I’m sure as time goes by you can become disheartened thinking you’ve seen all the good ones and you’ll never get that nostalgia (giddiness?) feeling again. While I’m sure you’ve seen many of the movies on the Recommendations page when you get the chance take a look at it again and give something a shot, I think there are a bunch that could scratch that itch.

  26. Advanced Lucifer Radio

    November 26th, 2014 at 9:28 am

    I’ve loved this film since I saw it as a kid in the 80’s and it seems so far up Vern’s alley that I can’t believe he’d never seen it before. It’s mix of humour and action are spot on and in an alternate universe I’m sure I have the complete 12 film Remo boxset. As valid as the complaints about Chiun are, to be frank Kate Mulgrew’s Major Raynor doesn’t fare much better, a strong military woman reduced to swooning in the face of such rampant old school charm and rugged manliness.

    And just so you know, the region B Blu Ray Vern mentioned above was put out by Arrow, a great UK company putting out genre classics in fantastic packages, and the disc has a great doc on 80’s action movies that’s well worth checking out.

  27. Great buttons!

  28. Someone needs to put out a Remo Williams: Great Buttons Edition bluray.

  29. I have a hard time wanting to watch any movie that I know ahead of time has something horribly racist or sexist, which I why I can never bring myself to watch BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS, despite a good friend loving it so much. I have seen this one, but it was years and years ago and really don’t remember much at all. I do know that I liked it at the time.

    I always thought Fred Ward was in an 80s British TV show called DEMPSEY & MAKEPEACE (again I remember almost nothing from this one, either), but I just looked it up and it’s a totally different guy. Huh. I wonder why I thought that. They look similar, but I bet the character is very similar to Remo, because I thought that show might even be some kind of spin-off of the movie. Did anyone else see that show who can confirm this?

  30. @MaggieMayPie
    I have a hard time wanting to watch any movie that I know ahead of time has something horribly racist or sexist, which I why I can never bring myself to watch BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS, despite a good friend loving it so much

    I understand that, by watching you can feel as though you’re condoning or participating, and hence a part of it; it’s a tough nut.

    I think there’s something to be said for your intention and awareness going in, though, and using that awareness to view something as a product in the context of its time. Though in fairness to this movie, I think it’s really just the “wearing another race as a face” thing that goes back to blackface and gets kind of weird, less so the performance. And it’s a weird area — this is seen as racist by many, yet Eddie Murphy dressing up as white people or the Wayan’s White Girls is thought of as funny by some.

    Either way, like a person there’s often more to a movie than a scene or two, and it’s hard to discuss things if you haven’t seen them. So I’d say give Breakfast at Tiffany’s a shot, and if you’re offended use it as a jumping off point to talk about what a casting call must have been like for an asian person back then.

  31. @clubside – Yeah, REMO WILLIAMS is not a classic, but as an 80’s action/adventure deep cut it’s still a lot of fun, only in the 80’s could a mediocre movie still be great, if you know what I mean.

    And about Joel Grey as Chuin, yeah it’s weird that they got a white guy playing an Asian guy, but at least Chuin is an actual character and one of the best things about the movie to boot, he’s hardly just a walking stereotype, especially if you compare it to fucking Rob Schneider playing Asian characters in Adam Sandler movies, Chuin comes off well.

  32. And that’s what’s so fascinating about 80’s movies, there’s just so, so many of them and many of them are worth watching (which is a lot more than can be said for most movies of say, the 00’s), some even turn out to be fucking great, the most recent hidden gem from the 80’s I’ve found is MIRACLE MILE*.

    It makes me wonder what other secrets the cinema of the 80’s holds?

    *although that’s when it comes to live action, technically the best obscure movie from the 80’s I’ve seen recently is WINGS OF HONNEAMISE, but of course that’s anime, which is like a world unto itself.

  33. By the way, I think the secret of Fred Ward’s success is he’s gotta be one of the most “avuncular” actors out there, he especially reminds me of one of my real life uncles in TREMORS.

  34. I thought for several years that Fred Ward is the father of Zack Ward. Apparently he is not.

  35. As an Asian who calls race on things pretty frequently, my friends always point out my love for this movie as Exhibit A to me being a hypocrite. Why give this movie a pass? Because I was a kid when I saw it and I had no idea Joel Grey was a white guy? Because it’s a positive portrayal unlike the bucktoothed Mickey Rooney in that “classic” Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Because Chiun is the freaking MAN and an all-time badass character? Probably all of the above even though who knows, maybe I’d find it tastelessly offensive if I saw it today.

    Wait…Roddy McDowell played Chiun in the TV movie??? Good lord, I can’t believe I’m saying this as an Asian, but I wonder if they should just keep the gag going with the inevitable remake, maybe cast Brian Cox or Morgan Freeman this time. It can be a ridiculous tradition like Travolta/Harvey Fierstein playing the Divine role in Hairspray or a girl always playing Peter Pan, only more racist.

  36. Overall it’s a very satisfying movie, even if Joel Grey is not a real Asian.

  37. This was one of my old man’s favorite movies. It’s probably the one genre movie I seen the most with my dad besides ENTER THE DRAGON. Never understood why this never became a franchise but I rather see a reboot of this than another Star Wars any day of the week.

  38. Minor note to say I fuckin love this movie, and even DLed it a few weeks back to watch it again cos for the life of me I couldn’t find a copy in PAL and my kids fucked my copy using it as a pretend sander. I love learnin scenes and the start with this old chirpy dude dodging bullets on the basis of the noise the tendons make before firing is unique and fucking brilliant action movie gemism. Not to mention the chirpy run across the water. I fuckin tried that straight after watching this move back in 1984 and tore the shit out of my knee down to the bone when it failed. Still got the scar, lost of pint of blood from that fucker.

    Anyone who doesn’t love this I gotta say, FUCK YOU AND GET OFF THE INTERNET MOVIE SITES YOU COCKSUKING HIPSTER. Cos this is what hipsters do.

    And majestyk, dun say in my opinion cos you sound stupid copying Vernisms. Gotta find your own fgt.

    Good review, and fuck this site, and fuck all these people, but made my night anyhow. Fucking haters gotta hate. I just dun get it.

  39. Sam, you were correct about Highlander’s ending:
    https://archive.org/stream/starlog_magazine-104/104_djvu.txt
    “As the crew make final preparations for the shot and the Silvercup sign is switched back on, Mulcahy notes, ‘We had originally planned to do this battle on the Statue of Liberty, but some other film [Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, STARLOG #99] had just done that. Then, when we went to New York, we were driving over the 59th Street Bridge, and saw this huge, very famous sign. We decided to use that because of its position. It overlooks New York; it has the most incredible vista of Manhattan. This is a combination shot — we’re shooting here and also at the actual location in New York.’ The Silvercup sign also has a connection with Mulcahy’s own background since the building below, the Silvercup Studios, is a production center for music videos and TV commercials, as well as feature films.”

  40. RIP Warren Murphy, who co-created the original Destroyer novels.

  41. Late post, but just rewatched this after years. Loved it for the reasons you cite. I’ve always been a Fred Ward fan. He always plays a good tough guy. Unlike so many action actors at the time he was masculine rather than pretty, muscular rather than a put on a speedo and dance in front of the other boys bodybuilder, and, except in the parts that called for it, understated and naturalistic among actors who screamed and wept and chewed the scenery.
    His greatest acting role was probably Henry and June, despite the movies other problems he was perfect.

    I am also a bit uncomfortable with the Grey as a Korean guy thing because of the history, but I love the fact that he was a racist and sexist and despite his “wisdom” was a fool regarding things like soap opera and thinking Brimly an Emperor. I found it especially amusing when he cut off Janeway’s building hysteria by rendering her limp with sexual ecstasy.

  42. I have serious love for this film. Have since I saw it in the theater at the age of 6. Love the theme song, love Fred fucking Ward, love cranky-ass Chiun. Hell, I love it when Remo is just hanging off of a log. And you are absolutely right, Vern: too few actors choose to jauntily saunter away from an explosion without looking back. It’s a tricky art, walking away from explosions. Far more nuanced that the average moviegoer would realize. And I’ve always loved that ‘plastic surgery’ is pretty much just shaving his mustache off. Even as a kid, that was pretty obvious. One more thing: the bedpan that Remo gets his name from reads “Remo, Ark.”, which is the state I grew up in and that was the first cinematic reference to my home state that I’d ever seen, which was pretty cool as a kid.

    “Y’never heard of ‘computer error’?”

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>