HCF REWIND 225: REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS AKA REMO: UNARMED AND DANGEROUS [USA 1985]
OUT NOW ON BLU-RAY from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 121 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Sam Macon is an NYPD cop. One night, he breaks up a mugging, and then is pushed into the river in his car. Sometime later, he awakes in a hospital, with a new face and a new identity: Remo Williams, He has been recruited for a secret organization that doesn’t officially exist called CURE, and will be their trouble-shooter, something he’s ideal for as he has no family and has military background. He’s taken to a building and told to kill the man inside. He turns out to be an elderly Korean man, and is the man who will train him in the special martial art of sinanju….
With a title like Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, you know this film was intended to be the start of a franchise, the filmmakers and studio obviously confident it would be a success at the box office. However, it wasn’t to be, and though the film is rather fun, it is a somewhat strange and awkward beast. The intention was obviously to make an action film different to the majority of genre efforts that came out at the time, one less reliant on force – the hero hardly fights and doesn’t use any weapons – and not macho and right wing, but this partly means that the film also lacks much of the necessary adrenalin all action movies need, plus the time, at least in America, just wasn’t right. Seen today, it has a great deal of entertainment value, plus a slightly quirky, offbeat feel that is most pleasing, but it doesn’t entirely work, though it’s far better than I remembered, or rather mis-remembered. This is because in fact, years ago, I’d seen another Remo Williams film, and the only thing I recall about it was that it was rather poor. That was actually a TV spin-off from this movie starring different actors, one of them being Roddy McDowall. The planned series never ended up being made.
The inspiration was The Destroyer novels by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir which began in 1971 and now number over a hundred, many having been ghost-written by a variety of authors. For the film version, they decided to downplay the fantastical aspects and the violence, plus add more humour. Some of the actors who auditioned for the part of Remo Williams claimed to be proficient in the martial art of sinanju, not realising that, like Sherlock Holmes’ baritsu, it was purely ficticious. The screenplay was supposedly by Christopher Wood, who scripted two Bond films, though it was rewritten by director Guy Hamilton, also a Bond alumnus whose Goldfinger can be credited with refining the Bond style initiated by Terence Young’s Dr No. Hamilton came up with the major action set piece on and around the Statue Of Liberty when it was surrounded by scaffolding because it was being restored, though much of the action at the climax ended up being discarded for budgetary reasons, something which the final cut suffers from. Despite its lack of box office success, Remo: The Adventure Begins, which was re-titled Remo: Unarmed And Dangerous in the UK [where the opening fight was heavily cut], became something of a cult favourite from many showings on TV.
After a great synthesiser opening theme that screamns the 80’s, Remo opens with a well-shot, almost noirish-looking scene where Sam sees two muggers chase somebody [interestingly the muggers are white and the victim is black] and gets in a brutal fight which ends when somebody else pushes him into the sea in his car. He awakes with a new identity and is forced to work for CURE [though we never find out what the letters stand for]. CURE is a strange organisation: it only consists of two people until Remo comes along, the boss seems to have invented the internet, and is answerable only to the President. We’re told that pretty much everything else is corrupt, and there’s even a jab at Ronald Reagan’ Star Wars space defence programme which clearly tell you where the writer’s and producer’s sympathies lie, and it’s a refreshing change from the norm at the time. Remo seems to do what they say far too quickly, while much of the background remains shady, but I guess we would have found out more if the film had gone to have sequels. In any case, most of the first half is taken up with Remo’s training in the ancient art of sinanju which all other Asian martial arts developed from, by Chiun, an old Korean guy who can dodge bullets Matrix style and has all the best lines, like: “Your reflexes are pitiful! The seasons move faster”, and: “Women should stay home and make babies. Preferably, man-child”. Though actor Joel Gray’s makeup was nominated for an Oscar, it’s painfully obvious that Chiun is not an oriental guy but a white guy caked in makeup.
A far bigger flaw is that Remo is never trained to actually fight, nor do we see him fight much either. I know the intention was to make a gentler action movie not reliant so much on violence, power, macho-ness or a huge body count, but one feels short changed [also think of how Jackie Chan, for instance, achieved this kind of thing and yet still delivered the martial arts goods] and there are still some nasty death scenes anyway, which jars with the general aesthetic of the film. After the first half which cuts back and forth from Remo’s training to rather clumsily building up the main plot, the action does kick in around half way with the Statue Of Liberty chasing. The use of both a full scale model of the torso, head and arm and the real thing is seamless and you tell that Fred Ward is doing a lot of his own stunts, but the sequence lacks edge. Further set pieces take up much of the rest of the film, the most exciting probably being Remo being chased by some seemingly super-dobermans, but, while the film is certainly not boring, it never reaches a higher level of excitement and the final confrontation – well, it barely exists in its final form. Of course if there had been sequels which would have ramped things up this wouldn’t matter so much.
I don’t think it’s the moderate budget that’s entirely responsible for the tele-visual look and feel Remo often has, much of the first half taking place in dark, dingy rooms and obviously aiming for a certain kind of realism, though this changes later with the Bond villain-style military base replete with a laser. The reducing of the more ‘out there’ element of the books is a little pointless because Remo still learns superhuman feats and you get odd details like those amazing dobermans. The storytelling becomes rather muddled – the baddies seem to be up to a whole load of stuff but some of it isn’t very clear. Remo is entertaining all the way throughout its two hours, but never becomes quite as good as it seems like it’s going to be. As it ended, I really almost said to myself: “Is that it”?, and yet that would have a been a bit unfair, because Remo does give you a good time, and really soars in some of the scenes between Remo and Chiun which certainly gives the movie its heart [there is kind of a love interest, but you’ll probably forget it within minutes]. Joel Gray really is excellent, especially with the way he walks and delivers his lines, and actually Fred Ward, who I initially didn’t warm to, won me over with his rugged charm. Guy Hamilton’s direction doesn’t really bring much style, but I do love watching older action films more and more as you can always see what’s going on!
One of the most impressive things about Remo is its score by Craig Sagan. The mixture of synthesiser and orchestral tracks is quite diverse and has some decent themes and some interesting action scoring. Of course you can tell the decade, but that’s part of its charm. Indeed, charm is something that this movie certainly has, and you can’t really say that about the films that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris were making at the same time, while it’s always fresh when a film tries to do something different with a tired genre, even if in the end it doesn’t entirely succeed. In fact, though I’ll probably regret saying this when they do it when I’m confronted with a load of shakycam and hyperfast cutting, I’d like to see a reboot that could build on the good aspects of this version. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of the film looks great and comes with some interesting extras, most notably a really insightful documentary about the 80’s action movie period.
· High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the film from a digital transfer prepared by MGM Studios
· Original uncompressed Stereo 2.0 PCM audio
· Isolated Music and Effects soundtrack
· Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
· Audio commentary with producers Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein
· Remo, Rambo, Reagan and Reds: The Eighties Action Movie Explosion – all-new feature-length documentary from High Rising Productions focusing on a decade of cinematic destruction and Remo Williams’s place among the carnage. Includes new interviews with genre expert Bey Logan, Remo producers Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein, celebrated directors Sam Firstenberg (American Ninja) and Mark L. Lester (Commando), producers Don Borchers (Angel) and Garrick Dion (Drive), filmmaker and scholar Howard S. Berger and Professor Susan Jeffords (author of Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era)
· When East Met West – Joel Grey reflects on his turn as Chiun
· Changing Faces – make-up expert Carl Fullerton discusses his Oscar-nominated work on Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…
· Notes for a Nobleman – composer Craig Safan talks about his classic score
· Theatrical Trailer
· Reversible Sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by The Red Dress
· Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the origins of Remo Williams by Barry Forshaw and an on-set report from American Cinematographer magazine