Color, 1985, 121 mins.
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Starring Fred Ward, Joel Grey, Wilford Brimley, J.A. Preston, Kate Mulgrew, Charles Cioffi, Michael Pataki
Arrow (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC, Japan R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1985, 121 mins.
The optimistically-titled Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was intended to be a big prestige release for Orion Pictures in 1985, coming hot on the heels of fare like Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Weird Science. With Roger Moore stepping down as James Bond just a few months earlier in A View to a Kill, the stage was seemingly set for a newer, younger action hero, in this case played by up-and-coming actor Fred Ward (who had earned strong reviews but not viewers with The Right Stuff). The rugged, square-jawed actor was paired up with an unusual foil here, an elderly Korean teacher named Chiun played in very impressive makeup by Man on a Swing's Joel Grey, who gets all of the best lines (and was replaced by Roddy McDowall for an inferior TV pilot four years later).
Ward stars as the title character, the new name given to a tough cop "killed" during a violent ambush and recruited (pretty much against his will) by a secret government agency, CURE, dedicated to taking down powerful, corrupt elites. Remo's new boss, Mr. Smith (Brimley), sets him up with Chiun, a master trainer in the fictional art of Sinanju who's able to dodge bullets and seemingly defy the laws of physics. Suitably prepped for combat, Remo is sent after a malefic arms contractor, Mr. Grove (Cioffi), while also tangling with the beautiful military bureaucrat Major Fleming (Orange Is the New Black's Mulgrew) and uncovering a devious criminal plot. Chases and explosions ensue.
Today this film stands proudly with other oddball mid-'80s action hybrids now firmly entrenched in the constellation of cult titles like Big Trouble in Little China and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, all of which underperformed in theaters but found an audience through TV and home video. Interestingly, this title also serves as a fascinating example of the approach filmmakers had to take to get a PG-13 rating, still a relatively new novelty at the time and a surefire way of getting kids into the theaters with more violent thrills than usual. Here we have some fairly tough, adult source material (Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy's series of The Destroyer crime novels, which now number over two hundred) made palatable to viewers of the time with liberal doses of comedy and mostly bloodless action complete with fist fights and gunfire galore minus the gruesome consequences of, say, the Dirty Harry series. The James Bond aspirations are tough to ignore, too, given the fact that this was the last studio feature directed by Guy Hamilton, best known for a quartet of 007 adventures (including Goldfinger and Live and Let Die); perhaps more surprisingly, the screenplay was penned by Christopher Wood, the jokey writer behind The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker (as well as the Confessions of...'70s Brit sex comedies). Wood's schoolboy humor is actually kept in check here, delivering a straightforward adventure with enough silly training scenes to keep younger viewers happy. Add to that a rousing score by composer Craig Safan at the height of his powers (just after his stellar work on The Last Starfighter), and you have a film simply released at the wrong time that found its niche only through word of mouth.
For some reason, Remo Williams has never been treated respectably in America with a widescreen version still elusive to this day in any format. The American and European DVD releases were full frame, taken from a cropped and very unimpressive older master, while a better but not exactly dazzling anamorphic edition popped up only in Japan. The 2014 Blu-ray release from Arrow in the UK should be more than enough incentive for fans to upgrade regardless of where they live, offering the first respectable transfer anywhere in the world. The two-hour film takes up a whopping 37GB of space, which should give you some idea of how well it's been treated here; the framing looks more accurate than either previous incarnation, and the naturally gritty '80s textures appear to have been left as is without any overzealous digital tweaking. Really nice all around, and the DTS-HD stereo track (with an accompanying music and effects track to boot) sounds splendid.
The familiar trailer has been carried over here, of course, but that's a tiny appetizer compared to the onslaught of extras. Producers Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein (with occasional background prompting from Calum Waddell) contribute a thorough audio commentary covering the source material, casting, stunts, effects, shooting locations, prosthetic noses, the insane difficulty of shooting on the Statue of Liberty, and plenty more. The 66-minute "Remo, Rambo, Reagan and Reds" takes another angle as it places the film in the context of action film tropes of the period, complete with interviews with Spiegel and Goldstein, martial arts expert (and commentary regular) Bey Logan, directors Sam Firstenberg (loads of Cannon films) and Mark L. Lester (Class of 1984, Commando), producers Don Borchers and Garrick Dion, Arrow extras stalwart Howard S. Berger, and Professor Susan Jeffords. The wider focus (encompassing the Rambo and Death Wish cycles and Schwarzenegger classics, among others) means you'll probably see this pop up again on future Arrow releases, hopefully including plenty of additional Cannon selections.
The main feature snaps back into focus with "When East Met West," a fine 10-minute interview with Grey in which he talks more about how seriously he took the role, incorporating his dance experience and working closely with the Asian community on his portrayal. In "Changing Faces," running nearly 11 minutes, makeup pro Carl Fullerton (who earned an Oscar nomination for his work here and also worked on such titles as The Silence of the Lambs, The Hunger, and two Friday the 13th films) talks about the incredibly elaborate but convincing process used to turn Grey into Chiun. The 13-minute "Notes for a Nobleman" puts a spotlight on Safan, who elaborates on the complexity of the score including the "wild sounds" and elaborate overdubbing to incorporate Korean folk music with traditional action motifs. As usual there's also a reversible cover with dual art options as well as a booklet with liner notes on the film and book series by Barry Forshaw and a vintage piece written on the set for American Cinematographer magazine. Rejoice, Remo fans; the answer to your prayers is here.