Starring: Fred Ward, Joel Grey
Director: Guy Hamilton
The fact that the producers drafted in Bond director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever) and Bond writer Christopher Wood (Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me) for this adaptation of the Destroyer novels by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir and called the movie Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins… would suggest that they had great faith in its hero being the 007 of the ’80s. In fact, with only a $14 million return on a $40 million budget, it was the beginning and the end for Remo. But perhaps the title (changed to Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous in some territories) was always meant to be tongue in cheek.
After all, this is a film which seems determined to flout what were by then the well-established rules of the ’80s action genre. It eschews big weapons, bulging muscles and a high body count, placing the emphasis instead on unarmed combat – with even that used sparingly – and casting the slightly built character actor Fred Ward in the lead. It also rejects the genre’s right wing politics. The people who recruit Ward’s surly, unwilling, fast food-guzzling New York beat cop to be an assassin are crazily gung-ho and not to be trusted, while, in a poke at Reagan’s “Star Wars” project, the villain of the piece is a crooked arms manufacturer who has hoodwinked the Pentagon with a satellite defence system that only exists on paper.
Making Remo fit for the fight is Chiun, a cantankerous Korean martial arts master who can dodge bullets (played by the not at all Korean Joel Grey, which sounds very un-PC, but honestly, his own mother wouldn’t recognize him). The endless bickering between the two shifts the balance of the movie away from action and more towards odd couple comedy – think Mission: Impossible meets The Karate Kid with a middle-aged Ralph Macchio (and with its combination of martial arts, a gritty New York ambience and a hero who lusts after fast food, there’s even a whiff of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who were appearing in comic book form at around the same time). Remo Williams is a lightweight entry in the genre, then, compared to the likes of Commando or Predator. But the film has an enjoyably irreverent sense of humour, some decent stunts, some rugged location shooting in New York City and Coney Island, and it really lucked out with one death-defying sequence on the Statue of Liberty, which was then undergoing renovation and was shrouded in scaffolding – perfect for Remo and some goons to go clambering about high in the sky.
The HD transfer is excellent, clean and pin-point sharp. Arrow’s recent release of The Delta Force was good, but this is a real step up in quality. As for the extras – where to begin? As well as an audio commentary with producers Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein, you get Remo, Rambo, Reagan and Reds, a well-made and thoughtful 1 hour, 6 minute documentary that offers a fond look at ’80s action movies from First Blood right the way through to Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. Topics touched upon include the blatant homoeroticism of all this sweaty brawn and oversized weaponry (were the filmmakers aware of this subtext? “It’s not the job of the writer or the artist to interpret his own work,” says the director of American Ninja.) And try not to let your jaw drop when a female academic praises Stallone’s films.
That’s not all. There’s also a 10 minute chat with Joel Grey, who talks about playing an 80-year-old Korean and trying not to offend anyone, and explains how he went to a Korean antiques place on Madison Avenue to find bits and bobs for Chiun’s flat. In another 10 minute interview, we also hear from Carl Fullerton, who did Joel Grey’s remarkable makeup. And last but not least, composer Craig Safan discusses writing the score for the movie (apparently he listened to hours of Korean music).