This franchise-wannabe forgot to actually begin the adventuring!
Digging through the list of memorable Wilford Brimley films, I came across Remo Williams. Based on a series of pulp thrillers, Remo Williams felt like MGM trying to make an American analogue to James Bond. That sounds fine on paper, and I remembered liking the movie as a kid. I fired it up (free on Tubi) and…well, let’s just say that Remo Williams has not aged gracefully.
Remo Williams – The Adventure Begins (1985)
Remo Williams (Fred Ward) was a cop who had a bad day. Beaten up by a gang of thugs and plopped into the harbor, he awakens from a coma with a new name and a new face. Turns out his bad day was the recruitment pitch from a super secret government agency, CURE. CURE takes the best of the best, turns them into lethal weapons, and has their agents hunt down crooks who are above the law.
Remo’s first target, George Grove, is a billionaire industrialist who is bilking the Army. Protected by a corrupt General, Grove is getting GI’s killed with faulty weapons while padding his pockets. Remo and CURE are the only ones who can take him down.
CURE Worse than the Disease.
The major problem out of the gate is that the organization Remo goes to work for is messed up, big time. The dip in the harbor? Yeah, Remo actually did his job and took down the thugs, right before his future handler (J.A. Preston) pushed his patrol car into the drink while he was calling in the crime. The head honcho of CURE (Wilford Brimley) seems to have no qualms with extra-judicial killings as a method of law enforcement, or with ordering his subordinates to commit suicide if caught.
The whole organization seems crap. There’s only four people in it, two of whom are old men who don’t do field work. Their methods are dodgy, and their tech is a Tandy computer that looks like it would struggle to run The Oregon Trail. At least they get some cool, totally not made up martial arts training…
Wang Chiun Tonight?
Where to start? Remo is sent to train with a Korean martial arts master named Chiun. Played by Joel Grey. Now, Mr. Grey is a fantastically accomplished performer (he won an Oscar for Cabaret)…but he’s not Korean. Hell, based on the fortune cookie aphorisms and distinct lisp, neither is Chiun!
As a kid, all of the racism flew over my head. Chiun could dodge bullets, kill a guy with one finger, and even run across water. He was badass! With a couple decades of hindsight, the character is a non-stop cringe-fest of tacky and tin-eared stereotypes. Nonsensical stereotypes to boot.
Why make him Korean? His cockamamie martial arts is fake, why not invent a fictitious country so you’re not making an ass of yourself by having a “Korean” guy talk with a Japanese accent, spout Confucian dogma, and compare Remo to a Yak (quick geography lesson, Yaks don’t live anywhere near Korea. Tibet, sure. Korea, nope.)
Pick a Lane.
Having a Jewish guy play a pastiche of Asian stereotypes can’t really be overlooked. It might have helped a little if Chiun didn’t derail the whole tone and pacing of the film. He’s supposed to be intimidating and the comic relief at the same time, so you never know what the temperature of the scene is when he’s around. And he’s always around!
The training segment is basically 80% of the film. While we do get some cool moments like Remo learning to dodge bullets and fight bad guys on the Statue of Liberty, it never feels like Remo graduates from Chiun’s remedial chop sockey school. When Remo finally goes into the field, ten minutes later Chiun shows up for no reason. He doesn’t help catch the bad guy. He just shows up to patronize Remo and spout patriarchy at his love interest (a very young and obviously too good for this role Kate Mulgrew.)
Remo Williams just can’t seem to stick to a given tone. CURE is bleak and gritty and violent…then they hand Remo off to the wacky Asian mentor. Remo uses Chiun’s tricks to largely avoid killing guys…except when he kills a guy with a finger jab to the eye or buries a guy in cement (which the camera lingers on, so there’s no doubt that guy is super dead.)
You Can Begin the Adventure Any Time Now!
The fatal flaw of Remo Williams is that it never launches. You’d think that after Remo takes care of the assassins on the Statue of Liberty, he’d have graduated to field agent status. Nope, more training. CURE gets tired of waiting and takes Remo into the field to scope out Grove Enterprises, where he screws up and J.A. Preston gets killed. So, now we’re down to three agents. At least Remo has motivation to get Grove, right? Nope, more training.
By the end of Remo Williams – The Adventure Begins, I was desperate for Remo Williams to finally become the hero of his own damn movie. It never happens. The final arc is so nonsensical, it seems that Remo winds up getting Grove by sheer accident. And Chiun shows up so that Remo still comes across as a green schoolboy instead of a deadly operative.
It’s no wonder Remo Williams never launched a Bond-esque franchise. I’d have a hard time taking Bond seriously, too, if Roger Moore had kept getting pantsed by Q each time he went into the field.