I’m taking a look back at a modestly forgotten action gem from the 80s REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS, starring Fred Ward a film the studio wanted to create a new action hero, sadly that wouldn’t be the case.
Way back in the mid-80s Orion Pictures wanted to bring a new action hero to cinemas that could grow into a franchise. They looked no further than the pulp paperback series called The Destroyer led by a man producers believed could be a “red, white, and blue-collar James Bond.” Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins would deliver larger-than-life action, and it would grow a cult following, but box-office failures resulted in it never getting its planned sequels. So, let’s dive into this forgotten 80s gem.
I first caught it on cable as a kid and I really loved it. The action was large-scale, with a cartoonish vibe and it easily had 13-year-old me on the edge of my seat. And I do think despite the years tarnishing the plot, the screenplay, some of the acting, and the impact of the score. That the stunt work still holds up nicely and it gives the action a lasting visual appeal. It actually has a great concept for an over-the-top hyper realistic action movie however the plot fails to live up to that potential.
You have this grizzled NYPD cop named Sam Makin who’s recruited by a secret organization known as CURE. Matkin’s death is faked. His face is surgically altered. His name is changed to Remo Williams, and he’s trained in Sinanju by a Korean martial-arts expert. Williams learns to dodge bullets, walk on water, and eliminate his fear of heights. But Remo’s training is cut short as he’s sent on his first mission to investigate a weapons procurement program working inside of the US Army.
Which, to be honest, is where this plot gets a bit too basic. Remo’s origin and training under Master Chiun are enjoyable. Unique even, and this takes up the bulk of the runtime. Once Remo is off in the field, investigating a dirty general and his henchmen is where things get a bit bland as the writing fails to create a smooth flow, or a genuine sense of evil in the villains. Which is where the B-movie elements of Remo Williams begin to take over.
Now right out of the gate there’s a huge issue with this movie that won’t play well with audiences today. And to be honest it was actually a bit in bad taste back in 85 when this movie was made and that is the casting of Joel Grey as Master Chiun. Grey is of course white and would undergo four plus hours of make-up work each day to look Korean, and even more so, the film would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup. So, it was clearly a different time. And I will say that Grey plays the role seriously, or at least toned down. So as insulting as the casting is, the performance in the film isn’t so much, although the makeup getting a nomination is comical as it’s clearly noticeable.
Now as a kid this movie had a lot working for it. The two large action set-pieces, one being the Statue of Liberty sequence, and the other in the woods to close the film, still hold up and look great all these years later. But the acting through adult eyes is a bit suspect. Fred Ward is awesome; he had a long career before this movie and his performance as Remo Williams is just…fine.
He’s grounded, he has a little swagger to him, and he’s solid in the action. But he doesn’t ever command this movie. That’s what you need from a memorable action star. And Ward more often feels like he’s just playing this character and not living it. Although again, Ward is given some clunky dialogue at best, so the chance of pulling this movie off without landing some cheesy moments was practically an impossibility.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins also delivers a fantastic instrumental score that builds energy and feels perfect for a spectacle filled action movie with a lining of patriotism. The only problem is the score feels like it’s only thirty seconds long and with it being repeated so many times it starts to become annoying. It’s been reported the film had budget issues and that the money ran out towards the end of production. So maybe it was unfinished, and they just rolled with what they had.
Remo Williams would hit theaters in early October of 1986 opening in the #4 spot with a $3.3M weekend and would only muster $14.3M during its theatrical run. Which wasn’t good. It was hard to find the budget for this movie. I found an old article stating it was around $40M and still not enough. So, if you take that as fact, and even with VHS sales and rentals, it’s easy to consider that Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was a hefty financial loss for Orion Pictures.
And looking back you can see why. The movie outside of the action has its flaws and 1985 in the action genre was loaded. People were still buzzing from Rambo 2 earlier in the summer. Arnold’s Commando came out just a week before this one, and Chuck Norris’ Invasion U.S.A. was also released only a few weeks prior to this movie. So, there were tons of options for audiences in this genre at the time and Remo Williams was an unfortunate casualty of that.
But the action in this movie, as I said, still holds up and is where the direction of Guy Hamilton is able to shine. First the backdrop of New York is pristinely captured. Watching Chiun teach Willaims to lose his fear of heights by walking along the rooftops is shot with a cool 70s vibe. The stunt work and practical techniques used during the sequence at Coney Island on the Wonder Wheel is thrilling and unnerving. The finale, with Remo Williams swinging across the forest on a log, is also pretty cool.
Yet it all pales in comparison to the visual appeal and tension of the Statue of Liberty sequence. It was a once in a lifetime shoot. The statue was actually undergoing renovations and wrapped in scaffolding. They were only allowed to shoot on the caging around the statue and ordered to never actually touch the statue. So, a life size bust was built down in Mexico and the shots were intercut in the editing room resulting in a breathtaking, completely unique, and really an iconic action scene during the 80s.
It’s too bad the smaller bits of action, the intrigue of the plot, and Ward in the lead, failed to live up to expectations. It’s been stated Ed Harris was up for the role. Which may have worked a bit better as Harris could’ve potentially carried the film more effectively. But still. It was 1985. Arnold and Stallone were kings, and even Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson were fading from popularity. Plus, it was still a few years before the ‘everyday’ heroes like John McClane and Martin Riggs would change the landscape of things and in the end, Remo Williams was a bit too flawed and not packing the larger-than-life hero it needed to build a franchise.
CAST: Fred Ward, Joel Grey, Wilford Brimley, J.A. Preston, George Coe, Charles Cioffi, Kate Mulgrew, Patrick Kilpatrick DIRECTOR: Guy Hamilton WRITER(S): Richard Sapir, Warren Murphy (Novel) Christopher Wood DISTRIBUTOR: Orion Pictures RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes RATING: PG-13 (For language, violence and intense sequences) YEAR: 1985 LANGUAGE: English GENRE: Action/Adventure
Anthony J. Digioia II © 2023 SilverScreen Analysis