Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
Better known in the UK as Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous, the original American title of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins better serves in its attempt to kickstart a franchise based upon Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir’s hugely successful The Destroyer novel series of the 1970s, in which a fallen officer, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, is recruited by a clandestine government organisation to fight crime which falls out of regular jurisdiction.
Drafted in to helm Remo was Guy Hamilton, who had previously worked on four films in the James Bond canon; notably Goldfinger, which is generally considered to be one of the greatest Bond outings, whilst Live and Let Die, though mixed in its reactions, nonetheless served as a solid introduction to Roger Moore, who would subsequently serve the longest as the suave secret agent. Hamilton would seem a suitable director then to introduce audiences to an entirely new breed of action hero; that of a sympathetic everyman, thrown into the deep end and forced to acclimatise to a different way of living. Interestingly enough, former Bond screenwriter Christopher Wood, would also come on board for the Orion Pictures adaptation (though his treatment was largely re-written by Hamilton), suggesting perhaps that the studio expected Bond-like ticket sales to shoot them into the stratosphere, rather than the proverbial trash can they were heading toward.
However, audiences didn’t quite seem ready/interested in Remo upon its theatrical release in 1985. It had fallen outside of the summer blockbuster schedule, languishing toward the end of the year with barely a quarter of its budget made back. The result of course was that any chance of a sequel was written off, leaving Remo to live on as a cult relic of 80s action cinema. Subsequently, an attempt to revive the series with Jeffrey Meek and Roddy McDowall was made in 1988, with a television pilot falling at the opening gates.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins isn’t a particularly grand outing when compared to the majority of big hitters from the 80s, but where it lacks that intrinsic bombastic approach it more than makes up for with a light heartedness that rarely reared its head in fellow contemporary efforts. Remo - though obliging with a spot of inescapable 80s politics, this time relating to the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. “Star Wars” project) - finds itself flirting between fantasy and action tropes, providing a neat balance of self-aware comedy during the process, which makes for some truly memorable central characters, in turn helping to overcome some of its more obvious failings.
After a worryingly obtuse opening, which lacks the conviction of the source material - and remains one of the film’s more incoherent plot devices - Remo settles into a steady pace once Fred Ward and Joel Grey are paired together in order to carry out a series of elaborately constructed training exercises. Much of the film’s two hour run time, which consists of a surprisingly anorexic plot, is padded out with several extremely entertaining moments, comprised of bickering and death-defying balancing acts. During these sporadic low-key sequences little pieces of social criticism creep into the mix, with Grey, on absolutely top form, doing wonders to earn the viewer’s trust in watching an accomplished American actor rise above what would ordinarily be a stereotypical portrayal; under the guise of a wise, old and undoubtedly racist Korean martial arts master (Carl Fullerton’s make-up was in turn nominated for an Oscar), he continuously scoffs at American history and culture, only believing in all sincerity that the one great contribution they made to the arts was in the form of a cheesy soap opera. Meanwhile, it’s a shame that on the back of his performance as the titular cop turned super agent, Fred Ward didn’t go on to do a great deal more in terms of showcasing his natural flair for comedy, as he had done so in establishing himself as a leading man. Shortly after his turn in Ron Underwood’s excellent Tremors, he made the transition into becoming more of a character-actor. Though he was afforded only a few juicy roles in the action comedy realm, he was certainly memorable for bringing to the screen likeable heroes, with fallible qualities, who differed from the usual mould.
In fact, so entertaining is the chemistry during first half of the film that things do begin to falter once Grey exits for a considerable amount of time, notably turning up at the end for a revelatory Jesus-like running on water gag. Despite a winning turn from Ward, a decent fight sequence set atop the statue of liberty (which was undergoing renovation at the time) and a cracking sequence in which Remo has a hard time outsmarting a bunch of canines, the film does stretch itself out, at times relying on an alluded romance which is largely disposable. Kate Mulgrew appears in a throwaway role here and despite her character being intended as a strong female counter-balance, she’s largely under-utilised. Likewise, Charles Cioffi’s antagonist of the piece enjoys the briefest of screen time as perhaps one of the 80s most grounded but forgettable villains. A case of an origin tale which struggles to establish its characters within a concise narrative, Remo nonetheless serves as a decent introduction to a duo who deserved to entertain audiences with a couple more outings together. Still a solid entry from Orion, which has thankfully been well preserved and presented nearly 30 years later.
Struck from a digital transfer prepared by MGM Studios, Arrow’s 1.85:1 1080p presentation of Remo is remarkably good, rendering natural looking skin tones and strong detail. While the image does tend to get dark at times, contrast and shadow detail remains well balanced; black tones are solid, with crushing being of little issue. To their credit, Arrow has shown little need in tinkering with the transfer, with a well preserved natural grain that compliments an evidently clean print.
The original, uncompressed Stereo 2.0 PCM audio track is also exceptional. Dialogue is clear at all times, while Craig Safan’s fun score gets a lot of love as it heightens the film’s action set pieces. Additionally, there is an isolated music and effects track, also presented in 2.0 PCM. Optional English subtitles are also included.
Arrow has gone beyond the call of duty in putting together a worthy selection of bonus materials. Aside from an audio commentary track, featuring producers Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein telling us as much as we really need to know about the filming of Remo, we’ve a solid hour-long documentary entitled Remo, Rambo, Reagan and Reds. With contributions from Professor Susan Jeffords, Bey Logan, Howard S. Berger, Donald P. Borchers, Mark L. Lester, Garrick Dion, Sam Firstenberg, Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein, these interviews cover how eighties action cinema reflected politics and culture in very black and white terms. The documentary additionally covers some of the more iconic features and film stars of the decade, from Stallone and Schwarzenegger to Norris and Bronson, talking about their different class aspects and overall public image, while touching upon action cinema’s often joked about homoeroticism. It builds nicely toward how action cinema transitioned into the nineties and how great an effect Hong Kong cinema had on revitalising the scene.
When East Met West is a ten minute interview with Joel Grey, who fondly reminisces about inhabiting the role of Cheun. He admits to initially passing on the film, before becoming convinced by Carl Fullerton’s makeup and the costume design. There’s a little talk about the fight choreography, along with his relationship with Fred Ward (who is sadly absent from all of the bonus features), and even a desire to play Cheun again, should the opportunity ever arise.
Changing Faces similarly clocks in at around ten minutes and features Carl Fullerton discuss his Oscar-nominated makeup procedure. His strong recollections prove interesting when he talks of designing his prosthetics around Grey’s body movements, in addition to hiring Korean men to provide face casts, so that he could perfect the final result. There’s clear disappointment in the air when he speaks of the film’s box-office failure, as it’s clear it was a film he was proud to have worked on.
At approximately fourteen minutes, Notes for a Nobleman sees composer Craig Safan discuss his time on Remo. The theatrical trailer rounds of a nicely presented package.