Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Analysis of a Flop: Remo Williams: The Adventures Begins (1985)

There's no getting around it. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was a blatant attempt to make an American rival to the British James Bond series. Not only did the producers hire Guy Hamilton (director of Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) to helm the picture but they also got Christopher Wood (who co-wrote The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) to write the screenplay. They were clearly hoping this "dream team" would create a film that would have the potential to overtake the then flagging Bond series and become a successful franchise in itself. But of course it wasn't all arrogance and hubris that made them subtitle the film 'The Adventure Begins', Remo Williams was based on "The Destroyer" books by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, which at the time had published nearly 60 entries in the span of 14 years so the film should have already had a built-in fan base waiting for it.

The film sees Fred Ward play an ordinary New York cop who is injured while trying to apprehend a group of thugs. While in hospital he is kidnapped by a secret government organisation called CURE run by a man called Smith (Wilford Brimley). Smith informs him that his old life has been erased and from now he will work as an agent of CURE. Remo doesn't have too many objections but before he can go out in the field has to be taught by Chiun, an elderly Korean martial arts master (Joel Grey), in the ways of Sinanju - a mystical fighting technique that gives people near super human abilities. Having learnt the basics Remo is quickly dispatched to serve his country by infiltrating and taking down a group of corrupt military arms manufacturers who are not only siphoning money from the government but also producing shoddy weapons!

Okay, so the source material was never at the level of Ian Fleming but the books are fun reads with outlandish action sequences and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour. Though the books make Remo out to be more of a conventional dashing hero, I quite enjoyed that they cast the more rugged Fred Ward in the lead. Ward excels not only at the comedic interplay with Chiun but also looks like the kind of guy who could conceivably kick your ass. I think even by the standards of the mid-1980s it was slightly racist to make up Joel Grey as an elderly Korean man. Okay, so it's not quite at the level of offensiveness of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's but it's still pretty bad. I mean if the makers of The Karate Kid could cast Pat Morita in 1984 there's no excuse for having to cast a white guy in 1985. That said I have to admit that Grey does do an excellent job playing Chiun - drawing maximum comedy out of such lines as "You move like a pregnant yak!" and the character's odd obsession with soap operas.

The supporting cast is also quite good. I particularly liked Patrick Kilpatrick as one of the main henchmen Stone, who has a distinctive diamond embedded in my front tooth. There's some definite shades of Jaws from the Bond films there. It's one of the great moments of the film when Remo knocks him unconscious and uses the diamond to cut through a glass window. A young Kate Mulgrew also gets a nice supporting role as a army major who helps Remo towards the end. The film has a lot of impressive sequences including a fight on top of the Statue of Liberty and some great little bits like Remo managing to dodge bullets and walk over wet cement without sinking.

In spite of all these great elements, what really lets the film down is the plot. Firstly, it's quite a sluggish affair clocking in at just over 2 hours when 90 minutes would have easily sufficed. Even though Remo's training is shown in little bitesize chunks it still seems far too drawn out and as a consequence the secondary plot about the evil weapons manufacturers comes so late in the film it almost feels like an after thought. Also, I don't know but it felt like the film really needed a big bad guy along the lines of Blofeld, holding the world to ransom. The weapons manufacturer Grove (Charles Cioffi) is a such a weak character and his plan seems very small scale compared to something like world domination. He's essentially making sub-par weapons and pocketing money. Surely he should face a government tribunal rather be executed by a super human assassin? What the film really needed to do was give Remo an adversary worthy of his new found skills/

thing is that the film feels very small scale in the way it's shot too. Despite apparently costing $40 million (to put that in perspective A View to a Kill which came out the same year was made for $30 million) it still feels like a TV movie. Hamilton's directing technique doesn't seem to have evolved much since the 1960s. It's a shame because the film had the potential to have some truly eye popping action sequences like the Statue of Liberty fight but everything is filmed with so little imagination that it falls flat. Also as much as I want to like Craig Safan's score, which has a good rousing main theme, again it makes the film feel quite old fashioned.

It's a shame that Remo flopped because I think there was (and still is) definitely a market for an action film series that didn't take itself so seriously. The main failure of the film was its weak script. Although it translated Remo's beginnings fairly accurately it failed to give him a good story to jump into. I mean why train a man to the point of super human abilities when you could have gotten a sniper to do the same job? I'm sure at some point the future another producer will try again at bringing Remo and Chiun to the big screen (after all there's now almost 150 novels been released), I just hope they learn from this film's mistakes because the potential is there for the taking.



  1. Agree, sometimes it feels like a tv-movie, but I enjoyed this one. I liked the dynamic between Chuin and Remo, those training sequences are funny, the idea that Chuin has to turn a hamburger eating NYC cop into a secret weapon for the government was a good one. I didnt even know that the actor who portrayed Chuin was not asian! I could have sworn he was a real one, I guess he did a good job! He had me going all these years.

    My favorite sequence is the one in the statue of liberty, those scenes where Remo's hanging from the rafters..that was awesome, also the scenes in Coney island. The stunts were pretty impressive.

    I wish the film had not flopped, I wouldnt mind seeing a revamped take on these characters either!

  2. I've heard of Remo Williams but haven't seen it yet. It's kinda funny that it was subtitled "The Adventure Begins" but was the only theatrical movie. That sort of reminds me of how the ending to Buckaroo Banzai announces a sequel that never happened.

    CURE is run by a guy named Smith... is this a reference to Robert Smith of the band The Cure?! It's probably just a coincidence but I found that funny.

    I liked Fred Ward in Tremors, Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway, and Wilford Brimley in everything I've seen him in so I'll have to check this one out eventually.

  3. Franco: Yeah, the make up they did for Joel Grey was pretty good all things considered.

    I like so many aspects of the film. Great lead, great set-up, good mix of humour and action. It just should have made more of an impact. I think Hamilton's lacklustre directing made the stunts seem low-key.

    Chris: Ha, never noticed that. Smith runs CURE. I think if you like all those actors you'll like this. Ward is as good in this as he was in Tremors. I wish he'd done some more action comedies in the 80s.

  4. Ha! I have very fond memories of this one. Back when it first came out I remember it running on HBO or Cinemax a LOT and always watching it. Yet, it's been about 20 years since I've seen it so I can't even remember if I liked it or not. Guess there's only one way to find out.

    I do remember thinking that Fred Ward was awesome and that I wish he had had a bigger career. I know that's what they were hoping for with this, but it never seemed to pan out. I think he's just awesome. I also remember wondering why in the hell would they cast a white guy to play an Asian when there are plenty of capable and talented Asian actors who could speak English. Even at 9 or 10 years old I thought that felt...........wrong somehow. lol.

    I've never cared for Hamilton's bland directing style. But back then it seemed that's what filmmakers were going for because a lot of films looked like that. Some day in the future another generation is going to be wondering the same thing with this whole "hand held shaky-cam" fad.

    Great review as always.

  5. Thanks Jason. Yeah, Ward is awesome in this. If you haven't watched it since the 80s I think it's probably worth another go. Just go in expecting it to be a little slow and clunky and I think you'll still dig it.

    I think the casting of Grey did put a lot of people off at the time. It's not even like Grey had a massive fan base or anything to bring to the film. Weird casting indeed.

    They actually tried making a TV series a few years later and recast the Chiun role with.... Roddy McDowell

  6. What??? lol.
    Studios. They never learn. lol.

  7. Didnt know about the television show or that Roddy McDowell was the one who played Chiun! Roddy was great, but as Chiun? Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins is one of many failed attempts at starting a franchise, too bad it never caught on, I did an article on failed franchises a while back and included this one.

  8. Yep, it got shown once in 1988. There's a few recordings floating about. Here's a clip of Roddy in action. Can't believe they were going to put this make-up on him week after week!