Sam Makin is a tough NY City cop who has his death faked and ends getting recruited by a secret organization to be an ultra secret lethal weapons to stop bad guys. With his new name ‘Remo Williams’, thanks to the inspiration of a hospital bedpan, Remo is trained by martial arts master Chiun (Joel Grey) to do some pretty amazing feats.
He’s quickly needed to stop a bunch of bad army guys who are going to do some dastardly things with some weapons and illegal sales or something. He meets attractive Kate Mulgrew and with his new skill set is off to save the day with some amazing feats.
I first saw Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins back in the 80’s on cable and thought it was a mixed bag then, and even more so watching it today.
The first half is really where all the fun is. It’s a crackling setup, as we watch Ward go through some goofy bizarre training by Chiun. Grey makes this Asian mentor a unique, likable, character. He’s more fantastical than real, demonstrating comic book skills like dodging bullets, and relaxing only supported by his fingertips.
With his deadpan instructions he trains Ward to do some incredible physical feats. Hanging on the famed Wonder Wheel in Coney Island and hopscotching around on poles.
Watching this stuff as a kid in the 80’s was a real hoot to see. He even teaches Ward how to dive into piles of sand! I have no idea how that will come in handy being a secret government assassin, but hey, it’s cool to see.
Ward and Grey make a surprisingly fun pair trading barbs and each being annoyed and reluctant with each other. I really enjoy watching them. Grey with his serious tone who lovingly watches soap operas and Ward with his gruff reluctance to all this oriental living hit a homer with the comedy portion of the film.
Today, there would probably be criticism for the casting of Grey as an old Korean martial arts expert, but his makeup is surprisingly really good! So good in fact it was nominated for an Oscar. For years after first seeing this I never knew it was a makeup job on a white actor.
With Remo’s training not yet finished he’s needed for an important assignment and the action really starts with an impressive bang with the famous Statue of Liberty sequence. This is the most memorable portion of the movie and it remains to be an impressive sequence of stunts and editing between the real location and mockups that were made for the production. It all works seamlessly.
I recall during that time in the mid-80’s seeing the Statue with it’s reconstructive scaffolding around it for over a year. When Remo used it as this action set piece I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Again it’s a bit goofy and the logic of why Remo is there to get over his fear of heights is a stretch. I guess the government guys got them access to go wandering around Liberty Island, but it doesn’t matter.
As soon as you see Remo (or the stuntman in this case) standing atop the real statue and hearing Remo’s heroic theme kick in you get a smile on your face. And the resulting action scene doesn’t disappoint with Remo swinging around, hanging on for his life, great stuff. They really should have used this as the climax in the film.
Really the adventure ends somewhere around this halfway point for Remo Williams.
Everyone knows they had hoped this would be an ongoing series of films – hence the title. They hired frequent James Bond director Guy Hamilton to bring his experience from that action series. And Hamilton stages that Liberty scene beautifully. It could have been something we saw in a Bond movie.
After that scene on Liberty Island, the film never reaches those heights again. It bogs down in tired bits of action. There are a few entertaining moments, but it more routine than rousing. For some baffling reason Remo and Chiun never team up to fight the bad guys together. Remo is paired with J.A. Preston who plays the agent who recruited him. Then Remo meets up with Mulgrew.
This always frustrated me. I kept waiting during the second half of the film for teacher and student to cement their bond by officially working together and was dying to see more mystical wonders by Chiun. But it never happens. Grey who was such a strange character for the first half disappears from the movie for the most part.
The baddies are lightweight and forgettable. I’ve seen Remo a few times and still don’t fully understand what exactly Remo is meant to be stopping them from doing. Wilford Brimley playing the head of the good guys explains it, but it just washes over me. You only really need to care about Remo having to stop some baddies.
There’s one amusing bit with Remo using this bad guy whose trait is having a diamond in his tooth to cut through glass. He just smooshes the guys face against the glass and starts cutting. It’s pretty funny. That’s the sole payoff to that heavy’s particular visual quirk.
Mulgrew is just kind of there and doesn’t really gets to do much of anything. One might think she’s going to be a love interest, but no. She’s barely even a damsel in distress that Remo heroically saves.
There’s something really lacking with the second half of Remo Williams. After all that training inside the apartment you’re waiting for things to really open up on a bigger scale. The statue sequence does a great job of that, but after that everything that follows feels a bit of a letdown.
Remo also doesn’t get to use a lot of those goofy specialized skills he’s learned from Grey in some thrilling encounters. It’s like they were keeping the action a bit too grounded and real than what they prepped us for.
This was around the time when martial arts-themed films were lighting up cinema screens. Karate Kid, The Last Dragon, Big Trouble in Little China. I’m not sure how that fad culminated back then or what prompted it. Either way, Remo Williams provides some entertaining goofy martial arts training for our hero. And it’s fun stuff!
The setup is really enjoyable, but unforatunetly the second half never lives up to the promises of the first. While waiting for the adventure to begin we’re having a great time watching Ward and Grey, witnessing some tantalizing physical abilities and then rewarding us with the great full blown action of the Statue Liberty scene!
Alight! But unfortunately after that it’s not such a thrilling adventure that follows.
They should have called this ‘Remo Williams: Preparing For An Adventure’.