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Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
The adventure begins...and ends
Loves: Action comedies, ‘80s films
Dislikes: The feeling "whitewashing" gives
Hates: Nostalgia losing to reality
1985 was an incredible year in film. Back to the Future, Real Genius, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Fletch, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Clue, Weird Science, Brazil, Better Off Dead and so many other great movies. That year also saw the release of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins..., though this film doesn't have quite the same cache as the others. However, if you were someone who saw it as youngster (probably on television), it's probably indelibly etched onto your brain as an action-film highlight. Watch it some 30 years later...and it's a little different.
Based on the The Destroyer series of pulp novels, this film follows Remo Williams (Fred Ward, Tremors), a former police officer who's been recruited by a shadowy organization that faked his death, changed his face and gave him a new identity. Now, he's going to assassinate the people in power who abuse their authority and influence, as has been done throughout time. He just has to learn how to do it without it being seen as an assassination. That's where Chiun (Joel Grey) comes in. A master of the (fictional) martial art Sinanju, he is tasked with training Remo for his mission: take out George Groves, a weapons dealer whose cheaply-made weapons are killing soldiers and swindling the government.
Much of the film focuses on the burgeoning student-teacher relationship between Remo and Chiun, and that's where the problem lies in watching the movie today. It's impossible to watch Grey (a Jewish guy from Ohio) portray a Korean martial arts master (under Academy Award-nominated make-up) without thinking about it through a more modern mindset that has issues with "yellowface". Considering the film was made 30 years ago, there's not much to be done about it now, and outside of a few cringey r/l swaps, Grey's performance isn't relying on cultural stereotypes (besides him being an old martial-arts master, which is really a character stereotype, not a cultural one.) In fact, Chiun isn't your average Mr. Miyagi type, as he watches soap operas, constantly insults Remo's caucasian heritage and seems to care little about forming any bonds with his pupil. If you can forget that Chiun isn't Korean under his make-up (not impossible considering its quality), he's a rather enjoyable character. He'd just be played by an actual Asian person if the Shane Black remake happens.
Ward is a pretty solid action hero, but he's got a bit of a goofy side that adds charm to what could have been a standard tough-guy role. That's certainly aided by the script from Moonraker/The Spy Who Loved Me scribe Christopher Wood, who's paired with four-time Bond director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, among others). The result is a movie that offers a street-level variation on James Bond filmmaking, handling all the action with an ‘80s panache, particularly in how the martial-arts skills Chiun teaches are displayed (one of the more memorable elements in the film.) The odd-couple relationship between Remo and Chiun makes for a good deal of fun, making them a unique, enjoyable take on an oft-seen action film convention, but the attempted pairing of Ward and Mulgrew doesn't really work, as it betrays the feminist attitude she displays earlier in the face of military misogyny.
Checking in at over two hours in length, Remo Williams has some pacing issues. If you had asked me before getting this DVD when the film's trademark Statue of Liberty scene (a big stunt sequence set in scaffolding around the statue used for a mid-'80s restoration) occurs in the film, without hesitation the answer would have been during the film's climax. In reality, it happens at the halfway point. Between the setup of Remo's character (a slow sequence to open the film) and Chiun's training, the film is methodical in establishing the two lead characters, while keeping the organization (led by Wilford Brimley) always nearby, so that the Grove storyline, which features Kate Mulgrew as a military officer doing her own investigation into the guns, isn't entirely forgotten. At least 30 minutes of this movie could have been slimmed down to ramp up the excitement, while the secret organization's role becomes too convoluted for the film's own good. What might have been intended as a twist feels more like a pitfall in the later part of the movie.
Watching Remo Williams for the first time in a while, the film isn't as good as youthful memories would suggest, and the fight scenes are a bit disappointing in their clumsiness, but the film still has a good deal to like about it, mainly in the way Chiun interacts with Remo. If nothing else, it's a concept that's ripe for revisiting.
The film arrives on one DVD, which is packed in a standard keepcase. The disc features a static anamorphic widescreen menu with options to play the film, choose scenes, adjust the setup and check out the extras. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't the greatest ever, thanks to limited, yet noticeable dirt and damage, and a surprising amount of compression artifacts, which result in more detailed scenes looking rather pixelated. The level of fine detail is pretty high (particles floating in the air are easy to see) and color is good, but not heavily saturated, while black levels are solid (important for a film that's dark in many places.) The transfer has a consistent grain structure throughout.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is a rather impressive affair, sounding bold and powerful, giving the Craig Safran score (including one of the great fanfares in film history [see below]) the presentation it deserves. The separation between the channels results in some fun moments, like an explosion that alternates blasts between the left and right channels. Dialogue is clean and easily understood, and sound effects sound solid. All around, this is a fun listen.
The four trailers included here, including one for Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins..., would be a disappointment, even if Arrow hadn't released a packed Blu-ray in 2014. But the fact that that release, with its commentary, documentary and interviews, exists, makes this disc feel even more empty.
The Bottom Line
Not every film can hold up to the expectations that come with nostalgia, and Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins… is no exception, running too long, while the fight scenes aren't of the highest caliber. The characters and concept however go a long way toward making it a guilty pleasure. While the sound is terrific, the visuals are a bit weak, and the lack of extras is a bummer when you know the Arrow Blu-ray is out there (and sadly region-locked.) Whether you remember it vaguely, fondly or not at all, give it a shot to see what might have been and what could be one day.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.