“He's got high hopes! He's got high apple pie in the sky hopes!”
The Oscar-winning Van Heusen/Cahn song “High Hopes,” popularized by Frank Sinatra’s rendition, may have served (in a slightly altered version) as JFK’s 1960 Presidential theme song, but the generalized lyrics of the chorus can be applied to practically any situation where a person or a group aspires to greatness. Orion Pictures had reason to be optimistic about the financial windfall they were likely to receive following the release of their 1985 wannabe James Bond action-comedy Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.
After all, the executives running the production and distribution company, who included the dynamic duo of lawyers-turned-producers Arthur B. Krim and (by then deceased) Robert Benjamin, had been instrumental in bringing Dr. No (1962) to the big screen, resulting in the launch of one of the most popular film franchises in movie history. Of course, all of this occurred at the legendary United Artists, which could also count the Rocky films and Woody Allen’s yearly offerings among its assets. After an acrimonious split with parent company TransAmerica in 1978, the former UA executives formed Orion and wound up distributing multiple Oscar-winning films, including Platoon, Amadeus, Dances with Wolves, and The Silence of the Lambs. Despite these legitimately impressive credits, and proving critics wrong when newly-installed UA executives (including future author Steven Bach) backed Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate, Orion suffered from a poor business model and too many financial misfires. They’d declare bankruptcy by the early 90’s. One of the many criticisms regarding the company was its lack of advertising savvy. James Cameron often spoke of Orion’s inability to raise more awareness of his breakout hit The Terminator (1984), thereby only making it a marginal success wherein he believed that with the right marketing push, it could’ve been far more profitable. Going into Remo Williams, the head honchos wished to recreate their earlier Bond success by introducing a quintessentially American “red, white, and blue-collar Bond.”
The 80’s movie scene represents an era of populist entertainment. It’s arguably the decade which created the most enjoyable slate of movies ever witnessed by human eyes (if Joe Dante’s Explorers is to be believed, aliens prefer films from the 50’s). Two of the biggest money-making genres were horror and action pictures. Nowadays, many of these films, which featured iconic tough guys like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris, are practically the definition of “Dad Movies,” and now that I’m a dad myself, I can see why. They’re full of big muscles, big explosions, and big egos. 1985 was a particularly impressive year for these three rough ‘n tumble brawlers. Norris would see the release of Andrew Davis’ effective Code of Silence and he’d continue his association with infamous schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus with the dual release of Missing in Action 2: The Beginning and Invasion U.S.A., a particularly wild movie marred by too-low of a budget to match its ambitious story. Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II had been released in May of 1985 and Schwarzenegger would take part in what is now regarded as the definitive Schwarzenegger movie, the masterpiece (for what it is) Commando. Mark Lester’s gloriously over-the-top slice of awesomeness was released only a week before Orion unleashed their own would-be action star onto an indifferent public.
Cheesy. Ludicrous. Offensive. These three adjectives can be applied to practically any action film of the 1980’s, but Remo Williams deserves a special place amongst the glut of whiz-bang pyrotechnic wonders Hollywood produced at the time. Based on the long-running “The Destroyer” series created by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy, the novels follow the exploits of an ex-cop turned secret assassin whose death is faked so he can join a top-secret renegade organization called CURE, whose sole purpose is to eliminate bad guys when the law can’t touch them. It’s a solid concept and one that offers up a multitude of possible storylines. In their effort to mimic the Bond franchise, Orion and the producers (who included executive producer and alleged immortal Dick Clark) hired both a director and writer with extensive Bond experience.
Director Guy Hamilton is responsible for my personal favorite Bond picture, Goldfinger (1964). A friend of mine commented that while he wouldn’t call Goldfinger his favorite, he acknowledges that it’s the most prototypical Bond film of the Connery era. It featured a memorable villain and henchman, a Bond girl with a famous moniker, and a plethora of cool gadgets. This is also the movie where James nearly has his very-active member cut in half by a laser, so it's got that going for it, which is nice. Hamilton had been making features since the early 50’s, including the excellent An Inspector Calls with Alastair Sim, before he got the chance to direct Goldfinger, having previously turned down the chance to direct Dr. No. After the hugely successful Bond entry, he’d attempt to go in a different direction with the compromised The Party’s Over (1965, which he had his named removed from due to the censorship issues), then a couple of middling Michael Caine vehicles (Funeral in Berlin, Battle of Britain), before returning full force into James Bond territory with three efforts. Connery’s final one-off Diamonds are Forever, successfully transitioning Roger Moore into the role with Live and Let Die, where he impressively adapted to the blaxploitation-themed vibe, and finally The Man with the Golden Gun, something of a mid-tier entry in the series. Force 10 from Navarone would be an ambitious failure and save for a couple average Agatha Christie films and a random crime caper flick, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins would be his penultimate production. I’m not certain whether a younger Hamilton would’ve brought more panache and energy to the proceedings, but his direction here fluctuates between flaccid and merely competent. There’s very little urgency, particularly in the opening scene, where a lone police officer (Fred Ward) fights three thugs at the same time. It’s sluggish and lacks style.
The writing fares much better but is still let down by the direction. While Ian Fleming technically created the character, Christopher Wood (and co-writer Richard Maibaum) is responsible for Richard Kiel’s iconic role as Jaws, Bond’s ultra-strong nemesis in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. Wood has a unique distinction in that he wrote the best Roger Moore Bond entry with Spy and one of the silliest with Moonraker. The screenplay for Remo Williams is straight-forward, but enjoyable, if reliant on cardboard cutout characters like a generic corporate bad guy and many lame contrivances. There’s some fun banter: “The deadly hamburger has done its evil work” and “I could find the temperature of your ass if I wanted to.” My biggest problem with the story is its simplicity. Sometimes, having a simple plot is a blessing, as in the case with classics like Halloween or Alien, but there’s a difference between simple and simple-minded, and this film is very much the latter. There’s very little complexity despite the professional actors doing their best over the course of a long 18 ½-week shoot. A lot of this could be rectified had the title role been played by an actor with charisma and a rogue attitude, but alas, while the production cast an obviously talented performer, he isn’t quite up to the task of shouldering the burden of an action-heavy film.
By the mid-80's, Fred Ward’s career had reached its next logical step. Up until Remo, he was a solid supporting actor, doing respectable work in Escape from Alcatraz and the nightmarish Southern Comfort. 1983 was a breakthrough year for Ward, with the release of the lightweight Uncommon Valor, the serious-minded Silkwood, and the incredible The Right Stuff putting him firmly in the public eye. Of course, there was a certain level of schadenfreude to be savored when Remo failed to launch a movie franchise due to its low grosses, despite some positive reviews. As the 80’s turned into the 90’s, Ward got another shot with Tremors, which was a minor hit in theaters but a massive one on home video. A supporting turn in George Armitage’s darkly comic Miami Blues garnered him good reviews along with the wildly creative and original HBO production Cast a Deadly Spell (1991). He’d also get to play another title character, this time as Henry Miller in Henry & June, an erotic drama by Philip Kaufman mostly remembered for being the first NC-17 film ever released. After that, he settled into a career mostly relegated to supporting roles, including a memorable turn in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Naked Gun 33 1/3. His career trajectory is a textbook example of Hollywood attempting to make a star out of a character actor who simply wasn’t meant to headline movies. In the direct-to-video Tremors sequel, Aftershocks (1996), I’ve always found his performance to be somewhat autobiographical as he rails against Kevin Bacon’s unseen character for becoming ultra-successful while he continues to toil away, living in a camper with only a Graboid arcade game to keep him company.
Fred Ward is by no means a disaster as Remo Williams. Physically, he’s absolutely outstanding, giving the role his all. A noted fitness junkie and former boxer, it’s no secret that he did half of his own stunts and he’s clearly visible in several tricky action set pieces, including a great deal of high-wire balancing scenes. In an L.A. Times article written by Jack Mathews, he describes Ward’s interpretation of Remo as “the most interesting action star to emerge from the movies this year.” Mathews clearly liked the film as he described it as “a welcome and breezy alternative to the mayhem and genocide of Rambo and Commando.” The issue with his performance is his passivity. He’s initially resistant to his forced CURE servitude, but his gruff demeanor doesn’t translate into more than mild annoyance and then a begrudging acceptance of his situation. He’s barely clued-in to how things work in the organization before he’s sent in to murder someone as a test. His in-the-field mentor Conn (J.A. Preston, The Spook Who Sat by the Door) tells him “We run on a need-to-know basis; you know that.” No, he doesn’t, Conn! He literally just came from his first meet-and-greet with the apparently three-person band of vigilante misfits that make up this phony baloney company!
The film incongruously begins with static, uninteresting shots of New York City accompanied by a rousing and justifiably well-liked score by Craig Safan (Major Payne, The Last Starfighter, Fade to Black). I didn’t particularly care for the music, but that’s mainly due to the slow-moving action onscreen, which made the music feel all the more out of place. A mustachioed Sam Makin (Ward) sits alone in his squad car, which begs the question, wouldn’t he have a partner? It does depend on the department and nowadays most officers essentially use nearby officers in the same sector but different cars as their partners, but this is NYC in the 80’s! Like, super dangerous environs. This movie literally takes place the same year as Death Wish 3! As a low-carb dieter, a single tear practically ran down my cheek as I saw an open bag of Sugar Babies next to Ward as he took a big bite out of a hefty grinder. Fuck, I miss bread. Some punks run past, he decides not to call it in, and they engage in a clunky fight scene. Makin probably has a concussion and there’s no way he could’ve survived the beat down he receives, but he stumbles back to his car. Before he can even get on the horn, Conn slams into him with a truck and down he goes into the East River. This underwater sequence, incidentally, was shot by Ramon Bravo, who gained legend status as both a Jacques Cousteau-level underwater cinematographer and as the zombie who fought a shark in Lucio Fulci’s glorious Zombie (1979).
Despite the Men in Black-style erasure techniques CURE goes about conducting, they take him to a heavily-populated city hospital where any number of officers might recognize him. He wakes up with his moustache shaved and this is supposed to indicate that they’ve “reshuffled” his face, i.e. facial reconstructive surgery. It’s highly implausible that this would happen so quickly and his look of shock upon seeing himself in the mirror is unconvincing. Conn shows up with a fruit basket and chooses Sam’s new name, Remo Williams, from a bed pan. Admittedly, it’s pretty amusing when Conn says they “put a lot of thought into it.” The newly-named “Remo” escapes and steals an ambulance from poor driver Reginald VelJohnson, which I assume is the job he took after he sassed the Ghostbusters a year earlier. A lame soft rock tune sung by Tommy Shaw called “Remo’s Theme (What If)” plays and I’ve never seen a movie try so hard to convince us that a character is cool. Conn is inexplicably waiting for him and directs “Remo” toward the CURE headquarters, where they meet up with the head honcho, Harold Smith, played by the late, great, walrus-mustached Wilford Brimley.
I have to assume they shot all of Brimley’s scene in a couple of days because he literally never leaves that office. He doesn't even stand up! He’s got a way-too-advanced computer which displays full color video and even presents a helpfully narrated biography of all the bad guys he’s going after. Ah, the future! The idea here is intriguing, being that he can track anyone and anything through a computer. The film could be regarded as ahead of its time if it weren’t so goofy. Many people tend to look at Brimley’s infamous “diabeetus” commercials and write him off as this jolly old fat guy, but his commanding onscreen presence was always highly effective throughout his career. His profile got a huge boost thanks to the success of Cocoon, but his brilliance could be seen quite early in films like The China Syndrome, Absence of Malice (an amazing single scene), The Thing (as the terrifying Dr. Blair), The Natural (as an old timey baseball manager), Hard Target, and The Firm, where he takes Tom Cruise for “a ride.” He plays something of a similar role from The Firm as he makes it clear that if any of the CURE members are compromised or try to quit, they’re “one dead son of a bitch.”
We arrive at the point-of-no-return for the film with the introduction of Chiun. There’s a great deal to be said about this character. Is he the best part of the film? Yes. Does the actor playing him give a great performance? Yes, indeedy-do. Is the portrayal of a Korean Sinanju master tasked to train Remo a horribly racist, regressive, yellowface depiction? Yuuuuuuup! I like to go into a movie knowing nothing. You can imagine how intrigued I’ve always been by this film thanks to its Statue of Liberty-centric VHS cover art. That being said, I had no idea Oscar and Tony-winner Joel Grey (Cabaret, Dancer in the Dark) was covered under layers of makeup by Oscar-nominated makeup artist Carl Fullerton (who is now Denzel Washington’s exclusive makeup artist). I’ve read conflicting remarks about this 4-hour-a-day makeup job. Some people, like the Academy, found it impressive, while many detractors think its crap. I have to say, I didn’t recognize Grey at all, so I say bravo for convincing me that this man was Korean, but boo to the filmmakers for casting a white man to play this part. Grey claims he repeatedly turned the role down and the producers say they attempted to cast an Asian man in the role. I believe Grey, but I’m a bit more hesitant to believe the producers. They wanted someone with credentials, which screwed-over a more appropriate choice that might’ve become a big star thanks to the quality of this role. Grey is simply awesome as Chiun. It’s a very offensive part, but he plays it so well and with such single-minded verve that it works despite the stereotypical overtones. He’s a martial arts master, a soap opera enthusiast, a xenophobe, a narcissistic, chauvinist, sexist pig, and may or may not be Jesus, considering his ability to walk on water and dodge bullets. Yes, he can dodge bullets...at point blank range.
I was surprised at the film’s two-hour runtime. I suppose that’s because I’ve been conditioned to assume that Chiun was going to be a minor character who trains Remo and then sends him on his way. Not so. In another film, there would be an extended montage set to some cheeseball 80’s synth music and the pupil would get stronger and tougher. Here, they really get to know each other. Chiun has the ability to paralyze Remo with a single blow and only by comically twisting a wrist or even an ear can he release him from the paralytic bondage. Is this supposed to be funny? I think so, but it’s still pretty weird. He’s almost supernaturally powerful; so much so that he can sit on his own fingertips. A major part of Remo Williams are death-defying balancing acts high up in the air. Fred Ward is mighty impressive here, ably balancing on various wobbly surfaces in full-view of the camera. At Coney Island, Remo hangs outside the compartments of the Wonder Wheel, which is all good, until we realize that the beach and amusement park is open for business, making me wonder why the fuck they allowed some guy to swing around on a giant Ferris wheel? Not only that, William Hickey (Oscar-nominee Prizzi’s Honor, The Producers) shows up as a sleazy carny who dares Chiun to play his ring-toss game. They walk off with a giant stuffed Pink Panther.
Crooked arms dealer George Grove (Charles Cioffi, Time After Time) is forcing the army to use faulty weaponry, which malfunctions and blows some poor grunts face off during some war games. Smart cookie and future starship captain Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black, “Red!”) plays Major Reyner Fleming, who thinks something fishy is going on. She has to work with buffoonish, incompetent, and sexually-aggressive assholes, but she handles them just fine, informing the general that “It makes no difference to me that you’re a man.” Grove doesn’t like her snooping around while Remo is doing some reconnaissance work on HARP, Grove’s shell company. Remo spots Stone (Patrick Kilpatrick, Class of 1999, Death Warrant), a henchman, eyeballing Fleming. He “kung fu chokes” the man, as an astute street cop remarks, and this reveals a diamond tooth very much like the one Lenny got after he sold his stock at the Springfield Power Plant.
To give the film some credit, there actually is a big action scene at the Statue of Liberty, which deftly blends footage outside of the real statue intercut with a huge replica shot in Mexico City. A lot of films feature posters which never deliver on their promised images. Chiun has brought Remo up there to continue his balance training and Stone pays off three random construction workers (including future Coen Brothers favorite Jon Polito), to apparently kill Remo. It’s very strange as they don’t seem to be assassins. Just blue-collar guys who get paid a stack of money to straight-up murder a perfect stranger. The stunt work is impressive and the film really does begin to take off here. It doesn’t get any less kooky, but its cartoonish bravado proves infectious. What effectively ruins this scene is that when Remo finally makes it down after delivering a satisfying beat-down on the scaffolding scumbags, he rounds a corner and there are a ton of workers laying down cement. Are you fucking kidding me?! Nobody noticed some guy climbing all over the statue?! What about your co-workers disappearing to ice the poor schmuck? I guess this film thinks men who work construction are simpletons because after Remo basically floats over newly-laid cement, his pursuer sinks right into it, going all the way under. A worker just stares in disbelief. Fucking help him! I know he’s a bad guy, but fuck’s sake!
Remo and Conn infiltrate the HARP facility and we get quite possibly the most bizarre sequence in the entire film. There might be a few missing scenes where part of HARP’s research is using an experimental intelligence serum on guard dogs. That’s the only way to explain a trio of super smart dogs (imagine the sharks in Deep Blue Sea, but land-bound), who can not only yank down a staircase with their teeth, but one of them can walk a goddamn tightrope! They are relentless in their pursuit of Remo. They sit outside of a window as he checks out a weapon that ends up getting laser-blasted out of existence in a self-destruct sequence. What the actual fuck is going on?! I’m really not sure if this is great or terrible. I lean toward terrible, but this parkour insanity is really something. We get the usual bullshit where a bulldozer conveniently has the keys already in the ignition, but cars have already started toward the two, so there’s no way they’d be able to escape. Conn gets shot and captured, but before he can be interrogated, he follows the CURE code and cuts his ventilator tubes, effectively killing himself.
Ward continues his devil-may-care mission as he sneaks into an army base in broad daylight in full-view of Major Fleming, who assumes that he’s military intelligence. Did I say she was smart? No, just kidding. She is, but boy is this movie silly. The two of them get trapped by Stone and I’m not sure if it’s a gas chamber or depressurization room, but even though they’re completely screwed, Stone can’t help himself and enters with a gas mask to beat the shit out of the suffocating Remo. Bad move, and in a bit that would make Looney Tunes proud, Remo scrapes Stone’s diamond tooth against the glass walls, weakening it enough for him to smash through it.
Remo and Fleming go on the run and Mulgrew is pretty amusing as she swears to file various forms that will really put some hurting on those involved in her attempted murder. Chiun shows up for no reason and insults Reyner, then they steal a truck with no brakes because they’re idiots. There’s an impressively long truck crash where the vehicle practically disintegrates, but somehow Chiun emerges without a scratch on him.
Remo leaves Fleming and Chiun because he’s “got a score to settle,” and there are some random explosions because supposedly the army has them on their infrared sensors but seems to take their sweet time getting to them. Remo ends up hanging from a huge tree that’s being strung along high up in the air. Grove and the compromised general (George Coe, a great actor who will forever be Woodhouse on Archer for me) try to shoot Remo down but he somehow gets the tree to drop and smash the military jeep. Grove tries to kill Remo, but guess what? He dodges bullets now, Matrix-style (except literally not at all like The Matrix and nowhere near as cool), and he tosses the pathetic villain into the jeep wreckage. A conveniently-placed stream of gasoline and a branch lit with only a hand-rub provide the requisite explosive ending for our less-than impressive villain.
The rest of the army arrives and have Remo and Fleming, who shows back up, dead to rights. They’re screwed. Chiun walks along the beach. What’s about to happen, you might ask? Will they be shot down or at least captured? Well, they should, because barring an act of fucking God, there’s no way they’re getting out of this pickle. Chiun knows the white man can be easily hypnotized by meaningless bullshit, so he runs across the water and onto a motorboat, where he and Remo speed off while Chiun bitches about his favorite soap opera, “Beyond the Night.” The soldiers could easily shoot them, but nahhhh...let ‘em go, boys! What’s that noise? Just the wind. The winds of FREEDOM!!
The brass balls Orion had to put “The Adventure Begins” into the title shows their less-than-subtle belief that they had the makings of a major film series on their hands. This was not to be, of course, with Remo placing fourth on its opening weekend and earning back a measly 14 million dollars against a jaw-dropping 40-million-dollar budget. 40 million dollars?! And you expected Fred Ward’s animal magnetism to lure unsuspecting audiences into theaters? I know I’m being unfairly harsh toward Fred Ward, but it just boggles the mind that they’d be willing to invest that much money in an unproven leading man. What were they thinking? Ward signed on for two sequels and stated that although he’d initially had reservations about taking the role, he very much wished to continue playing the part if given the opportunity. As an avid traveler himself, Ward felt the character could have many globe-trotting adventures which would delight audiences worldwide. He’d have better luck with carnivorous sand worms.
Ed Harris and a young Bruce Willis were up for the role and there’s a great “what if” regarding how the film would’ve fared with that alternative casting. It’s also a matter of timing. We were still a couple years away from Timothy Dalton’s angrier and more ruthless interpretation of James Bond in The Living Daylights (1987). 1985 happened to be Roger Moore’s swansong as Agent 007 with the release of A View to a Kill; a lackluster but amusing entry which is now more infamous for the realization that Bond girl Tanya Roberts’ mother was younger than Moore, prompting him to turn in his Walther PPK for good. The John Glen-directed run of Bond films had become increasingly silly and since these films were still turning a small profit, Remo Williams should’ve fit right in. It’s likely that too many action movie fans had turned to more visceral, intense action and weren’t interested in what amounted to Bond-lite.
The film has so many problems, but there are goodies to be had if you’re willing to turn off your brain. Many of Chiun’s one-liners, though delivered in a horribly regressive accent, land beautifully, particularly his insults: “He moves like a baboon with two cleft feet.” “You move like a pregnant yak.” “The Korean is the most perfect creature.” “Lesson 36: 20 steps to bring a woman to sexual ecstasy.” “Women should stay home and make babies. Preferably man-child.” It’s unbelievably wrong, but pretty funny. The action is staged competently, but Hamilton’s age was showing. An action director of the era like George P. Cosmatos, Joseph Zito, Walter Hill, Hal Needham, or Mark Lester might’ve done something far more exciting with this material. For now, the film is too cartoonish to be taken seriously, but strives to be taken seriously despite its goofy quality.