What it’s About: Remo Williams (Fred Ward) may not be the finest of New York’s Finest, but at least he’s honest. When his career is put to an ostensibly life-ending halt when he investigates a routine call by the docks, he is given a second chance to start again under a new identity as a super-secret agent, part of a government organization with no name. He’s also starting over with his training thanks to Chuin (Joel Grey), a master of an esoteric deadly style of martial arts. In order to stop corruption in the military contractors in bed with the Pentagon, Remo will need to unlock abilities he never knew he possessed, while learning to get along with the eccentric Chuin and his disdain for American laziness.
Why Watch it Today: On this day in 1986, the Statue of Liberty was reopened to the public after years of renovation, and those catwalks feature prominently in the denouement of this big-budget action/adventure movie.
Orion Pictures Corporation clearly had bold plans for this pulp adaptation, at least judging from the “Adventure Begins” in its title, but when the box office was just copacetic, the studio got cold feet. Instead, Remo Williams soldiered on in the small screen, introducing itself to audiences in the early nineties as a way to fill up a couple of hours of broadcast with intrigue, explosions, and some good, old-fashioned Orientalism. While it’s painful to watch Joel Grey squint and buck his teeth through his imitation of a Korean grandmaster, it’s (relatively) clear nobody involved in the project meant any actual Asians ill-will. (The film was nominated for Best Makeup.) Chuin may be little more than a caricature and a fantasy, but it’s largely a positive one. His command of his body puts him in the same league Christianity’s favorite son (no spoilers, but the for folks looking for realism, please seek another film). Moveover, Chiun’s critique of western work ethic is a big part of the movie’s message, and while it’s ham-handed, it sets it apart from the usual crap Arnold was serving up to at the time.
The real fun of this film, though, is watching Remo evolve from Keystone Cop to Texas Ranger. Fred Ward has an excellent physical range, and he is charmingly bumbling at first but makes a first-class action hero by the end. American leading action men are rarely asked to enact a transformation in competence, while “improvability” seems a stock feature for Asian kung fu films and its stars. It’s too bad, because this movie is on to something, and for those who grew up with Remo, we were left scratching our heads wondering when the adventure would continue.