MarvMarsh delights his teenage self by watching the new Blu-ray issue of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. His adult self is less thrilled.
In the mid-to-late-80s, when I was a teenage boy with little more to my name than paper-round money and an immature frontal lobe, there were two films that seemed to pop up everywhere, intriguing me; asking me why I hadn’t seen them yet. They were To Live and Die in LA and Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous. For whatever reason, I kept seeing posters for these two films and they gave my teenage brain the impression of dark, exciting, mysterious things that really should be investigated. Thirty years later I still haven’t seen To Live and Die in LA but now, thanks to some kind soul thoughtfully producing a Blu-ray, I can finally say that yes, I have seen Remo. My teenage self, at least, would respect me for that.
Strangely, the film I knew as Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous also goes by the title Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins – and it is under that wildly, and with the benefit of a 21st Century perspective, mistakenly optimistic title that it is known in 2014. I suppose that tells us something about the purpose of releasing Remo on Blu-ray: this is not really about now, where we know Remo didn’t go on to become a John Rambo or John McLaine; it is about then, 1985, when action heroes were in their steroidal pomp and threats to America were everywhere in need of being given a good machine-gunning right in their big hate-filled faces. In that environment Remo offered something different.
The story, such as it is, tells us of blue-collar cop (we know he’s blue-collar because we see him sitting in his patrol car eating junk food and listening to basketball) Sam Makin, the sort of low-grade rebel who has a pig for a cupholder, who is transformed into Remo Williams, he of the no arms but dangerous manner, by a secret organisation that appears to consist entirely of three men, all with moustaches. This shadowy cabal fake Sam’s death in a noble battle with some unconvincing street hoodlums, place him in a coma (it is possible he went into a coma as a result of nearly drowning during the faked death but surely nobody would be cretinous enough to actually fake someone’s death in a way that places the person at risk of catastrophic brain damage or even genuine, actual death), perform facial reconstructive surgery on him, give him new fingerprints, shave off his moustache and name him after a bedpan.
Now, the facial reconstructive surgery will have to be taken on faith because to me the pre-surgery person looked like Fred Ward with a moustache and the post-surgery person looked like Fred Ward without a moustache. Far be it from me to suggest that the Moustaches, high on the importance of facial hair, pretended to have his face reconstructed but actually only shaved off his moustache, but it does look a lot like that’s what happened.
The name, though, is all bedpan. In a scene that makes as much sense to the viewer as it does to the newly compus Sam/Remo, a pleased-with-himself man in a hat and black leather gloves strolls into Sam/Remo’s hospital room and for reasons known only to him and his psychiatric professional makes straight for Sam/Remo’s bedpan, which he then begins turning over in his hands. Why anyone would do that I do not know. Ask yourself if you, when visiting someone in hospital, make your first order of business a bit of a play with the person’s bedpan. I imagine you don’t and that, I’m afraid, is why you probably aren’t in a shadowy cabal. Anyway, toying with a man’s bedpan comes in handy when you need to give him a new identity, as seeing the bedpan is made by a company called Williams based in Remo, Arkansas, the pleased-with-himself man (who is also one of the Moustaches – keep up) decides that Remo Williams is just the name he was looking for. It appears that they had gone to all the trouble of shaving off his moustache and giving him new fingerprints but hadn’t bothered with a name until the last moment.
The reason for the extreme makeover is that the Moustaches have identified Remo as the ideal person to be their weapon in a war against whoever they fancy warring against. In an impassioned speech, the middle Moustache explains that “everywhere you look slime is on the loose” and as slime is famously something that is dangerous when on the loose, rather than just sort of oozing slowly where gravity dictates, this is a big deal.
So it is a secret organisation involved in vigilantism, then, which couldn’t be more 80s if it joined Bananarama and stuck a Rubik’s Cube up its arse. There is some suggestion that the Moustaches are government-sponsored and maybe we would have seen more if Remo’s adventure had been allowed to do more than begin, but here all we see are Moustaches and giant computers that gather up all the information in the country and funnel it into the biggest Moustache of all’s little computer, in front of which he sits and huffs and issues the occasional threat. If you have seen the recent television series Person of Interest you will have seen a very similar thing, only with less engaging Fred Ward and more giant plankton Jim Caviezel.
When I speak of moustaches please understand that I really mean high end, top class moustaches. The boss Moustache is played by Wilford Brimley, a man who always appears to be sat in moral decrepitude right up to his neck and perfectly comfortable with that. Wilford, as anyone who has seen him will know, has a moustache among moustaches, an alpha ‘tache and it’s clear from the film that it is this moustache that is the source of his character’s power. The boss has the biggest moustache; his subordinates have smaller moustaches and Remo, at the bottom of the pile, has no moustache at all. His was taken from him in an act so symbolic it could have been shown on screen with flashing lights and a big arrow pointing at his upper lip without any reduction in subtlety. Poor Remo. A man denuded of his bristles is no man at all.
The third member of the Moustaches is the most troublesome. How might a man like Remo, a man of no particular skill who has for no reason at all been pulled out of his life and given a new identity as a vigilante killer, acquire the tools to be both unarmed and dangerous? The only sensible way is to place him under the tutelage of a wise old man from the East, a man steeped in the traditions of martial arts and seeming to know much more than anyone else by virtue of being very old, very still and Asian. It is also helpful that he can dodge bullets. As a twist, this wise old Asian is a very proud Korean rather than Japanese or Chinese. As an even bigger twist, and one for which there can be no reasonable excuse, this proud Korean is played by Joel Grey, a white man, in heavy and obvious make-up.
The Blu-ray features an interview with the make-up artist, who explains that he saw a Korean man at the local petrol station and paid him a hundred dollars to come to his house and take a mask of his face. So there you go. Rather than employ a Korean actor, and they apparently auditioned a few, they painted a white man to look Korean using a man from a petrol station as a template.
The film is a bit racist then – the fate of the sole black member of the Moustaches probably doesn’t need telling – and also a bit sexist. As the plot grinds into gear – and it is as tossed off and empty a plot as it is possible to get, involving a corrupt arms dealer who is dealing in arms corruptly – a woman, pretty much the only one in the film, appears. She is an Army Major who is nosing around the corrupt arms dealer because she knows something’s up. When she meets Remo she becomes a lust-driven helpless smiling fool and keeps that going right to the end. It’s a bit of a shame as the film has a nice, gentle feel to it. It’s like a well-meaning Uncle who has a few unfortunate views on immigrants.
Directed by Guy Hamilton, who is better known for having directed three Bond films right as Sean Connery gave way to Roger Moore, there is plenty of Moore-era Bond in the pleasingly sedate direction, as if the intention is to not let the action get too exciting for fear of scaring people away. Well, Guy, nobody will be scared away here. The action is hilariously bizarre and this is where Remo is most fun, whether intentionally or not, and on some occasions I really couldn’t tell. A completely ridiculous face-off between Remo and three grinning construction workers who have been paid thirty dollars to shove him off the Statue of Liberty and a raid on the corrupt arms dealer’s factory during which Remo gets involved in a battle of wits with three genius dogs are particular highlights. The dogs, by the way, are the acting stars of the film; evil deviousness has never been so realistically portrayed.
Teenage me would have been greatly disappointed to find Remo isn’t remotely dark, mysterious or thrilling, though there is at least the baffling sight of a man diving head first into the side of a giant pile of sand and then bursting out of the top like Marilyn Monroe out of a birthday cake, which has a charm of its own. It is, though, pleasingly gentle and fun, with enough nonsense in there to get you through. It’s the sort of film that believed a car tumbling down a steep hill was enough excitement in a world filled with Terminators and Rambos. In 2014, it is even less impressive, and I can’t see the Blu-ray being of great interest to anyone other than established Remo fans or people who firmly believe that the moustache should never have lost its status as the ultimate symbol of masculine power.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins is out on Blu-ray now.