Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins is one of the most underrated, if not almost forgotten, action movies of the 1980s.
Released in 1985 to middling reviews and a pretty crummy box office, Remo Williams is the story of a New York City cop who has his death faked and wakes up with a new face, a new name and a new job. All of this is courtesy of a super-secret crime fighting organization called CURE, run by Harold Smith (Wilford Brimley) in one of the absolute worst casting choices ever. Seriously – if the source material describes someone as lemony-faced, wearing a gray suit with skin that seems almost gray itself, Wilford Brimley is NOT what one pictures.
Anyway, Remo (Fred Ward) has been recruited to be the enforcement arm of CURE and is introduced to Chiun (Joel Grey), the reigning master of Sinanju (which, we learn, is the martial arts discipline that all others came from) who has been hired to train him. Well, introduced isn’t exactly the right word. Remo is taken by Conn MacCleary (J. A. Preston) who was, previously, the only person other than Smith who worked for CURE, on his first assignment wherein he’s supposed to simply enter an apartment and kill the occupant. Said occupant is Chiun and after failing miserably at his mission, we learn that this was merely a test. Chiun is unimpressed but is convinced to stay on and train Remo.
We’re treated to some of Remo’s training and a get to know Chiun a little (he loves soap operas!) and learn that Sinanju has provided emperors and kings with assassins throughout history. Remo learns the basics of balance, breathing, the ability to become lighter than air and to even dodge bullets. The training and history lessons are short lived, however, as Smith calls Remo in for his first mission, which Chiun is not too happy about, saying Remo needs more time to be ready. Nonetheless, Remo is briefed on his mission, sent into the field and, following an exciting set piece on the Statue of Liberty (which is encased in scaffolding since it was undergoing maintenance and repairs at the time), eventually saves the day.
One of the biggest failings of the movie is that it’s never really explained why Chiun agrees to stay and train Remo. The books, of course, DO provide plenty of background: In the books, Chiun sees Remo as the integral piece for fulfilling a prophecy and becoming the avatar of Shiva. A father-son relationship is built over the course of the early books and while Chiun constantly criticizes Remo, it’s obvious he loves him and that Remo feels the same for him, even going so far as to call Chiun “Little Father”. It’s this bond that is created between the two that is the heart and soul of the “The Destroyer” series and the fact that it is only briefly touched on in the movie (Remo does call Chiun by his nickname after Chiun slips and calls him “my son”) is one of the movie’s biggest mistakes.
Despite what it sounds like, this is an entertaining movie. It’s directed by Guy Hamilton (who helmed a few James Bond movies) and the screenplay was written by Christopher Wood (who co-wrote a couple of different James Bond films), so it has a decent pedigree behind the camera. Fred Ward does a great job at capturing Remo’s serious yet sassy personality, and Joel Grey (while not Korean at all and acting under a lot of makeup) is excellent as Chiun. The action scenes, which admittedly seem a bit “small” for this type of movie, are fun and the plot, while a bit thin (especially in comparison to some of the books), is simple enough that it doesn’t get in the way of the action. It was recently released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time Movies and was on Netflix not too long ago, and if you look hard enough you can probably find it on a streaming service somewhere, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find. If you’re a fan of action films and have never seen this, you owe it to yourself to give it a watch.