A Mensch of an Executioner if Not Quite a Franchise
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins… (1985), which careened into theaters 32 years ago today, carries the dubious mantle of the “blue-collar James Bond action franchise” not to be. Based on The Destroyer series of adventure novels authored by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, its fans are nonetheless legion, and its shambolic mix of tongue-and-cheek camaraderie and gritty one-on-one combat, though never quite shaking off its budgetary constraints even as it provides a wondrously executed scaffolding-encased Statue of Liberty daredevil sequence, delivers marvelous fun. Michael Sragow’s tribute for The New Yorker ably synthesizes its appeal: “This superhero fantasy, from 1985, eschews bloodlust and rabble-rousing in favor of a friendly, comical tone. In the setup, the U.S. super-agency CURE – devoted to battling ‘slime’ wherever it appears – takes a New York City cop and transforms him into the world’s most economical assassin: he does all his killing with his hands. The partnership between Remo (Fred Ward) and his Korean martial-arts instructor, Chiun (Joel Grey), is like the shotgun marriage of hamburger and Seoul food. Remo’s targets are the wheeler-dealers who ‘roam the halls of power with impunity.’ Chiun agrees to take on Remo because he sees ‘a glint of promise’ in his eyes. The glint of promise in both stars’ eyes makes this movie merry; they have a hilarious physical chemistry, and Ward has wryness and heart. He’s a mensch of an executioner. Guy Hamilton directed Christopher Wood’s script, but it’s the cinematographer, Andrew Laszlo, who squeezes vibrancy and color from even the seediest alleyways. The way he sees the New York Harbor in the opening scenes, the bridges and boats and skyscrapers all seem to be strung with party lights. And what follows is a blast.” For the one-of-a-kind actor Ward, it remains, alongside his rough-’n’-ready astronaut Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff (1983), his brooding Henry Miller in Henry and June (1990) – both for writer/director Philip Kaufman – and his feisty cop Jake Moseley in writer/director George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990), which he also co-produced, his most beloved movie role, and one on which he performed most of his own stuntwork. To co-star Grey, it was a riskier proposition: flying in the face of political correctness to embody an 80-something Korean “Sinanju” sensei, the actor needed a colossal amount of convincing, and special makeup effects artist Carl Fullerton, whose carefully worked-out four-and-a-half-hour process, did the trick. (Fullerton would subsequently merit an Academy Award® nomination that year.) “It was amazing…really seamless,” Cabaret Tony® and Oscar® winner Grey commented in an interview for the title’s hi-def release last year. “So I had no choice but to do it. I had a really good time.” He committed mightily to the task: “I studied Korea, Korean art, Korean quirks, and how it was so different from China. We were very specific about the look, and the clothing was Korean as opposed to Japanese or Chinese, and I brought a lot of things to that specific space. I went out and shopped in Korean stores and antique stores, so that the sparseness and the symbols that were around were Chiun’s. I liked Fred very much, but I was merciless as Chiun. I gave him no slack. [The film] really touched a nerve with a lot of people....and even the Asian community accepted my Chiun as real. I mean, we never had a complaint. Next to Cabaret, Remo Williams is the film that most people come up to me and talk about.” With the presence of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins… on a generously accessorized Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray with a crisp historian-populated Audio Commentary and several behind-the-scenes featurettes, people will continue to talk and enjoy.