Contributor Patrick King believes Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…falls short of everything it sets out to accomplish.
Released in 1985, smack in the middle of the 80’s action boom, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…(1985) released through Twilight Time, is a tongue-in-cheek spy movie that never climbs out of the hole it digs. Directed by Guy Hamilton (the man behind several James Bond films including Goldfinger and Live and Let Die) from a script by Christopher Wood, it’s based on characters from the Destroyer series of pulp actioners, of which the first volume was released in 1971, with new titles released up to the present day. The movie edges just this close to being a complete parody. As it stands, Remo Williams ends up being only a sort-of spoof.
I’m no expert, but hopefully this movie represents one of the last gasps of yellowface, a shameful tradition of white people playing brutal Asian stereotypes that dates back to the beginning of cinema, and to the stage before that. The spoofy nature of the film kind of softens the edges a bit, but it’s still pretty bad, and it proves that Asians are still one of the last frontiers of Hollywood racist stereotypes. In a 1985 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Joel Grey, who played Chiun, Remo’s wise Korean martial arts instructor, had this to say about his character: “We dyed my hair platinum blonde so that even when I wasn’t in Oriental makeup, I didn’t look like myself. My son said I looked like Billy Idol.” Well. Ahem. Okay, then. Amazing, the lack of self-awareness in both the article and Grey’s quotes therein. I’d like to think this kind of attitude wouldn’t fly in the 21st Century, but who the hell knows?
This being the 80’s, Remo Williams simply had to have a bunch of over-the-top action scenes. They’re all very slick and well-choreographed, but overly long. Hamilton fills the movie with plenty of gliding tracking shots to match the soft, smooth nature of the fictional fighting style that Chiun teaches Williams, a former cop who was “recruited” to a secret government agency after they fake his death and change his identity. There’s a hell of a fight scene that takes place on the scaffolding of the Statue of Liberty under repair, but even this lasts a bit longer that it perhaps should. The final action sequence lasted so long that my mind wandered and I started to think about other things: what to do with our tax refund, bills I needed to pay, sandwiches. You get the idea. The one good thing about the action scenes is that they’re driven by a wonderful pop-action soundtrack frm Craig Safan, who composed the music for the 80’s cult classic The Last Starfighter.
Remo Williams (Fred Ward) works for a super-secret government agency that blackmails the poor schmuck into working for them to assassinate bad guys in the name of preserving democracy. It would have been nice if the movie explored the logical inconsistency of essentially forcing a man into servitude in the name of freedom, but as much as the movie tries, there simply aren’t any decent ideas here. It’s a spoof that’s not very funny, a boring action film, a movie that revels in stereotypes while trying to make fun of them.
The best part of the movie is the cast. Fred Ward, as always, comes off as a kind of gruff uncle with a soft heart. Wilford Brimley is perfect as a cantankerous old man in charge of the super-secret organization. But Kate Mulgrew is the real gem here. She has a military toughness appropriate for her role as a soldier, but she has an elegance and sweetness about her. She’s just about perfect as a soldier who won’t take shit from condescending men, even her superior officers. When a general tells her, “It makes no difference to me that you’re a woman,” Mulgrew’s Major Rayner Fleming quips back, “It makes no difference to me that you’re a man,” then gives him a wonderfully sarcastic smirk. A great cast, yes, but I’m not sure it makes the movie worth seeing, especially with all the racism, but it does come close.