ICYMI: Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
For the last two-plus years I’m sure you’ve seen me occasionally rant about the current state of Hollywood. That is, the lack of originality and desire to remake anything and everything. I can’t tell if it’s the audience getting lazier and less sophisticated or the executives and producers refusing to challenge the status quo. Regardless, there are no absolutes in this life or my film taste so I offer one definitive recommendation for something I believe could use a 2021 makeover.
1985’s Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins had the potential to be a successful film series, and the audacity to make such a claim in the title. Sadly, us 80’s film geeks were denied such a treasure. But what remains is an overlooked romp with plenty of charm thanks to its lead performers Fred Ward and Oscar-winner Joel Grey.
The opening scene introduces us to “tough as nails” NY cop Sam Makin. After successfully fighting off a pair of thugs, he is mysteriously targeted and seemingly drowned. The next morning, he awakes to a new name and face. He’s informed that he has been selected, against his will, to join a secret, shadow agency to fight larger than life forces of evil and corruption. Probably a good thing that Sam Makin leaves zero family and friends behind. It’s sort of a light-hearted take on La Femme Nikita.
As far as we can tell, this enigmatic agency only requires two people to function: J.A. Preston (Body Heat, A Few Good Men) as an unofficial Lieutenant and the legendary Wilford Brimley as the brains. Technically, the brains are provided by Brimley’s all-knowing and all-seeing supercomputer, but his mustached bravado makes the endless exposition worthwhile. The freshly christened Remo Williams is then tasked with beginning his training under master assassin Chiun, played with zeal by Joel Grey. Of course, this training only commences after Remo is assigned to “kill” Chiun. The less said, the better.
The majority of the film finds Chiun playing Mr. Miyagi to Remo and his endless wiseass remarks. The developing relationship is somewhat predictable. What isn’t predictable is the rapport between Ward and Grey. Yes, Remo slowly transforms via Chiun’s ancient eastern methods and yes, Chiun sees Remo as a surrogate son, but their discourse is priceless.
As for the rest of the plot (not that there’s much), Brimley’s agency is looking into the nefarious George Grove (Charles Cioffi) and his shady governmental funding. Also, on the case is the feisty and sadly overshadowed Major Fleming (Kate Mulgrew). Still can’t tell if the sexism on display in the film is supposed to be a cautionary tale or par for the course in the action flicks.
Eventually, Remo is thrust into service and the results are first rate. The realistic and thrilling action is staged by Guy Hamilton, best known for his contributions to the James Bond series which included Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever. These scenes include Remo fending off bad guys on a scaffolded Statue of Liberty, training with Chiun atop the moving cars of Coney Island’s famous Wonder Wheel and flying high on a transported log. All of these scenes involve amazing stunt work and camera work that may give you vertigo.
As mentioned earlier, the performances are key. Fred Ward gets to shine in a rare lead role. His career has seen him play straight-laced in films like Southern Comfort and The Right Stuff, as well as provide engaging support in Robert Altman canvases like The Player and Short Cuts. But Ward’s work as Remo is pure athletic joy. Oscar and Tony winner Joel Grey is equally winning as Chiun. But, yes, it is highly problematic. If you can look past the “yellow face” you will see a skillful comedic performance with line readings of the highest order. His justification for keeping a stuffed animal is truly exquisite.
Not sure who owns the rights to Remo Williams but I’m sure the right filmmakers can give us the continuing adventures we deserve. I can see Colin Farrell under the inventive direction of Chad Stahelski (John Wick series) in a film franchise. I can also see the producers of “Leverage” getting a series order via Netflix with Christian Kane as the secret agent in the making. The possibilities are endless.