For years, I’ve been a big fan of character actor extraordinaire Fred Ward. Back in the day, he was known for playing gruff, tough guys in films like Southern Comfort (1981) and Uncommon Valor (1983). He carved out quite a career for himself, appearing in diverse films like the Space Race epic The Right Stuff (1983) and monster movie homage/spoof Tremors (1990). It was always a treat to see him in prominent roles, like the cult fave Miami Blues (1990) and his one shot at playing a potential franchise action hero with Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985). Ah, what an unfortunate title, automatically jinxing it – the fates punishing the filmmakers for such an act of hubris.
Based on the popular, long-running series of pulp paperback novels known as The Destroyer by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, the movie was intended to kickstart a franchise and, despite heavy promotion, promptly tanked at the box office, not even making back half of its budget. While far from being a great movie, Remo Williams is a fun romp with a muscular performance by Ward who looks like he’s having a blast with the role.
Sam Makin (Fred Ward) is a tough New York City police officer. One night, he pursues and stops two guys beating on another man. All three proceed to take on Sam, but he manages to subdue them. Battered and bruised, Sam gets in his vehicle to catch his breath and is rear-ended by an armored car, knocking him into the East River. That night, Sam Makin died. When he awakens, the cop has been given a new face and renamed Remo Williams. He’s been recruited by a secret government organization known as CURE that cuts through the corruption and bureaucracy. As his contact MacCleary (J.A. Preston) tells him rather cheekily, “You’re going to be the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shall not get away with it.’”
This initial meeting sets the playful, slightly satirical tone as the understandably wary Remo is trained to become a deadly operative. But first, he meets his second handler – Harold Smith (Wilford Brimley), who tells him that their organization only answers to the President of the United States. This scene is a lot of fun to watch as the smartass Remo bounces off the no-nonsense Smith. It’s great to see veteran actors like Ward and Wilford Brimley play off each other.
The bulk of Remo’s training is supervised by an old Korean martial arts master named Chiun (an unrecognizable Joel Grey) who schools him in the ways of Sinanju. They first meet when Remo is told to kill him, unaware who he really is. It’s a test, obviously, which Remo fails in hilarious fashion as Chiun dodges his bullets and then proceeds to avoid Remo’s clumsy attacks, sending him hurtling into furniture. It’s an excellent exercise in physical comedy on Ward’s part and dry wit on Joel Grey’s part.
MacCleary sets the tone for Remo’s training by telling him, “All I can promise you is terror for breakfast, pressure for lunch and aggravation for sleep. Your vacations will be two minutes when you’re not looking over your shoulder and if you live to draw a pension it will be a miracle.” The training sessions are basically a series of humiliating exercises as Chiun insults Remo (“You move like a pregnant yak.”) while repeatedly besting him physically. Initially, Remo is skeptical as he says to Chiun, “Is this gonna be the kind of training where we sit around for ten years and you tell me I’m big enough to break a brick with my big toe?” The ancient martial arts master replies by paralyzing Remo’s left arm with a slight touch. He walks around espousing his philosophy while all Remo can do is writhe around in pain.
A good chunk of Remo Williams is an origins story involving the protagonist’s death and rebirth as a blue collar James Bond. The rest of the movie involves a powerful businessman named George Grove (Charles Cioffi) who is manufacturing a very expensive assault rifle for the U.S. government that has some lethal flaws. The ambitious Major Fleming (Kate Mulgrew) is investigating Grove and his rifle, unaware that he’s in bed with her superior General Scott Watson (George Coe).
Fred Ward has always been a very physical, expressive kind of actor and Remo Williams may be the best example of this as we see him do most of his own stunts. He also shows fantastic comic timing, especially in his scenes with Grey. Ward doesn’t get to show off his comedic chops enough for my tastes and so when he does, in films like Miami Blues and Tremors, it’s a real treat. He does a nice job of showing Remo’s transformation from blunt, two-fisted cop to super efficient secret operative. He plays well off Grey as the relationship between their characters is initially full of friction with Remo refusing to let go of certain old habits while Chiun is the unrelenting disciplinarian.
It’s great to see Ward getting a chance to carry a movie and he commits fully to the role with his rugged charisma and character’s smartass take on life. It’s a lot of fun to watch Remo stumble through the early stages of his training as he grumbles about Chiun’s methods and then see him improve over time. There’s a credible learning curve that many movies of this type tend to gloss over in a montage. It’s a shame that Remo Williams didn’t do better as I would have loved to have seen Ward in a few more installments.
Joel Grey is virtually unrecognizable under all kinds of make-up as he portrays Chiun like a kind of benevolent Yoda Zen master who watches soap operas when he’s not training a.k.a. tormenting Remo. It’s certainly a novel casting choice, but a role that Grey, to his credit, immerses himself in completely. He plays it straight, which makes the way he treats Remo that much funnier. Kate Mulgrew is okay as Remo’s foil, but the role feels underwritten and an attempt to recreate a kind of screwball comedy/sexual tension thing between their characters doesn’t quite work despite the chemistry between the two actors. Mulgrew is an actress I’ve never given much thought about; at times, she gives off a Katherine Hepburn-type vibe and she gamely plays along as Remo’s sidekick in the movie’s third act. That being said, she’s at her most appealing here and I would’ve loved to have seen her and Ward in another, different kind of film – maybe a romantic comedy where they played veteran reporters that fall in love despite their competitive nature. Oh well, they’ll always have Remo Williams.
Guy Hamilton directs Remo Williams with his trademark no-nonsense direction. Clearly, he was brought in to give the movie some of the same panache and pedigree he gave Goldfinger (1964), but he only really cuts loose on the thrilling action sequence where three construction workers confront Remo high atop the Statue of Liberty, that was, at the time, encased in scaffolding as it was undergoing extensive restoration. There’s something inherently thrilling seeing an actual guy performing all these death-defying stunts sans CGI. As a result, there is an intensity and sense of danger to the vertiginous fight that is missing from a lot of contemporary action movies where you know most of it was probably done with a green screen on a soundstage somewhere (with the notable exception of something like the Jason Bourne films or Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol).
Orion Pictures executives were interested in creating a blue collar James Bond series of movies and felt that The Destroyer books could be the basis for a potential franchise. At the time, there were more than 62 novels with over 30 million readers, which could result in a very profitable series of movies. Producer Larry Spiegel spent four years getting the rights and developing it for the big screen. To aid in their desire to create an American James Bond, the producers hired Christopher Wood (The Spy Who Loved Me) to write the screenplay and Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger) to direct. Hamilton wasn’t interested in making a Bond rip-off and wanted Remo Williams to have “its own ideas, its own interest, its own characters and its own style.”
Fred Ward read the script and then met with director Guy Hamilton and the producers. They felt his personality suited the character of Remo. The actor was drawn to the character because of how he changes over the course of the film: “He starts as one person and he has a physical plus an emotional change.” Even though they saw him first and Hamilton wanted Ward for the role, the studio wasn’t convinced. And retrospect, it’s not hard to see why. While an excellent actor, Ward was hardly a box office draw or had traditional leading man looks and charisma. At the studio’s request, the filmmakers saw a couple hundred actors, but eventually came around to Ward. Before he agreed to sign on as Chiun, Joel Grey was told that more than three hours a day would be spent applying make-up to transform him into the old man. As result, the actor wasn’t sure if he could play the role because it depended on make-up. After doing several tests, he felt he could act through it. However, he described the actual process like “undergoing surgery. You watch in the mirror as your face disappears and a new one takes its place. At first, it’s unnerving.”
The production spent five weeks shooting on the streets of New York City, including the Coney Island Wonder Wheel and the Statue of Liberty. When filming moved to the soundstages in Mexico, the Statue of Liberty was recreated from the torso up using wood and fiberglass, standing 85 feet tall. In addition, the production used the Itxal Popo Volcano National Park as a stand-in for the logging camp that Remo infiltrates. Ward impressed the cast and crew by performing many of his own stunts as the production and its insurance brokers would allow, including clinging to a swaying beam atop the real Statue of Liberty over several weeks and performing a dangerous stunt in a car submerged underwater.
Remo Williams received mostly negative reviews from critics. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt that the movie was “a far cry from even the worst of the Bond movies. It recalls, instead, the now defunct Matt Helm movies, the cheesy James Bond spinoffs that starred Dean Martin.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “The adventure fails mostly because Ward never achieves super-hero status. He never quite lives up to the name RE-MO. Sluggo maybe.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, John Haslett Cuff wrote, “Considering the collective experience of the filmmakers, Remo Williams should have been much more tightly crafted.” However, the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas called it, “a slam-bang action-adventure loaded with surprises,” and that it had “some of the funniest, brightest dialogue heard on screen all year.”
Remo Williams is never able to top the thrilling Statue of Liberty sequence, which really should have been at the climax and the movie suffers as a result. I felt myself tuning out as Remo goes after Grove and his cronies. Although, how he dispatches them is kinda cool in an A-Team kinda way. Enough time has passed that it is the right time for a remake/reboot of this franchise. There are certainly enough books to choose from and in the hands of the right people, maybe with some kinetic Jason Bourne style action sequences, you’d have a hit on your hands. In the meantime, we’ll always have this well-intentioned attempt that mixed Bond-type action with a quirky sense of humor that didn’t connect with audiences at the time. They weren’t ready for an everyman special operative until The Bourne Identity (2002), which features a similar action hero that underwent a rebirth of sorts and was well-versed in unarmed combat. That’s not to say Remo Williams was a movie ahead of its time, per se, just not as well-executed or, let’s face it, as good.
Murray, Will. “Fred Ward: It’s Hard to be a Hero.” Starlog. December 1985.
Murray, Will. “Remo & Chiun – The Odd Couple, Assassination Style.” Starlog. January 1986.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins Production Notes. 1985.