The Film: 4/5
**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
Released in October 1985 by rising mini-major studio Orion Pictures, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins had all of the hallmarks of a potential action blockbuster. It was based on the extremely popular Destroyer paperback series created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir that sold over 30 million copies around the world, had four time James Bond director Guy Hamilton calling the shots, and sported rugged character actor Fred Ward (Southern Comfort) in the title role. With a healthy budget, plenty of audience-pleasing action scenes, and a capable supporting cast consisting of veteran film and television players in prominent roles, Remo Williams went into theaters already weighed down by the expectations from its parent studio that it would be successful enough to spawn a profitable, long-running franchise. After opening to mixed reviews and unexceptional box office it was clear that for its titular hero and Orion Pictures the adventure was ending just as soon as it began.
Fortunately all was not lost. The exploding popularity of home video sales and rentals guaranteed that Remo Williams would eventually find a forgiving audience, and indeed it did. In the years since it was rejected by moviegoers the film built a decent cult following and was granted numerous releases on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. Now that every video edition of Remo Williams to date has gone out of print this beloved franchise non-starter has been granted its first Blu-ray release courtesy of the U.K.-based Arrow Video.
Sam Makin (Ward) was just your average hard-working New York City beat cop until the fateful night when a routine encounter with some punks lead to his untimely demise. Sort of. Instead of becoming fish food in the East River Makin has been recruited into a top, top, TOP secret government agency called CURE that handles the dirtiest of espionage assignments that the CIA are too pussy to deal with. Agency boss Smith (Wilford Brimley) and handler MacCleary (J.A. Preston) place Makin - now going by the name Remo Williams, which MacCleary got from a hospital bedpan - under the care and tutelage of Chiun (Joey Grey), the aging Korean master of the totally badass (and totally made up) martial art "Sinanju". After an extensive training period that leaves him with the ability to dodge bullets and run with great speed and balance across the most narrow and unstable obstacles, Remo is ready for his first mission. Together with no-nonsense military officer Major Fleming (Kate Mulgrew), he must put an end to the criminal alliance between corrupt weapons contractor George Grove (Charles Cioffi) and the U.S. Army to supply their soldiers with defective assault weapons.
In the annals of failed silver screen franchise hopefuls, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins is one of the few whose box office defeat cuts the deepest. If there was any justice in this world Fred Ward would have been anointed the new king of action cinema stardom, Remo sequels would have followed every 2-3 years, and Bruce Willis would still be a New Jersey bartender going on auditions in between shifts of slinging drinks to winos. The confident guiding hand of director Hamilton (no stranger to large-scale action heroics) and a swift, unpretentious script by Christopher Wood (another veteran of the Bond series with scripting duties on The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) helped to mold Remo's first and only movie outing into what is simply a solidly entertaining diversion. Ward makes for an ideal working class hero by underplaying the part of Remo and allowing his natural charm and sense of humor carry him through the story's built-in elements of absurdity. During the film his character is called upon to do things that would have made even 007 flinch with uncertainty, but Ward makes you believe this poor, initially overwhelmed slob is capable of anything he puts his mind to.
The choice of Joel Grey to play Remo's uncompromising mentor and unlikely friend Chiun probably brought back horrific memories of Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney turning Japanese in The Teahouse of the August Moon and Breakfast at Tiffany's respectively for the Asian community. Though you could hardly blame them for being incensed at his casting, Grey manages to navigate the ethnic casting minefield through the use of terrific make-up effects work from Carl Fullerton (The Silence of the Lambs, Training Day) and by giving the character of Chiun a warmth and fierce intelligence that transcends Hollywood's utterly pathetic history of casting white actors as Asian characters....almost. It would have been even better if a real talented Asian actor had won the role, and there have always been plenty of them working in the industry. Future Starfleet captain Kate Mulgrew isn't introduced until the film is halfway over and has little to do for the remainder but accompany Remo reluctantly on his mission, but she does it all with energy and professionalism.
Wilford Brimley (The Thing) and J.A. Preston (A Few Good Men) impress with their limited screen time as Remo's pleasantly cynical superiors, while Charles Cioffi (Shaft) and Michael Pataki (Graduation Day) handle their underdeveloped villain roles like true weary champs. George Coe (Kramer Vs. Kramer) does well as a morally conflicted general. Reginald VelJohnson (Die Hard), William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor), Jon Polito (Miller's Crossing), Patrick Kilpatrick (Minority Report), and American martial arts legend Gene LeBell all pop up in supporting roles on both sides of the law. Fans of 80's horror will have fun spotting Tom McBride (Friday the 13th Part II) and Suzanne Snyder (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) as characters on a soap opera Chiun happens to love almost as much as life itself.
Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors, First Blood) shoots the action with stunning clarity and coherence against the backdrop of locations in New York City in the first half and Mexico in the second half. The set-pieces are at their best during Remo's extended training and peak with a battle atop the Statue of Liberty that provided the inspiration for the film's marketing campaign. The rousing music score by Craig Safan fits the fights and chases like a glove and often sound like extensions of the heroic motifs he developed for his score to The Last Starfighter, with the sounds of Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw's end title theme "What If" rearing its exquisitely-permed head when all is said and done to remind us loudly and while reeking of cocaine and hair gel just what decade birthed this movie. Those dated and futile attempts at capturing the younger demographic aside, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins is fantastic fun.
Arrow Video's 1080p high-definition transfer of Remo Williams was sourced from a digital transfer prepared by rights holder MGM and presents the film in its intended 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The picture quality for this nearly three-decade-old feature is pretty clean and vibrant with a consistent but low amount of grain remaining in the print. Hardly reference quality, but definitely the best Remo has ever looked on home video. The film was originally mixed in Dolby Stereo and the English 2.0 LPCM Stereo audio track included on this Blu-ray replicates the initial soundtrack with terrific clarity and solid volume levels for the dialogue and music and not a single trace of audio distortion. English subtitles are also included.
Arrow had a pretty low bar to clear in terms of Remo-related supplements as most editions of the film available worldwide are pretty bare bones on that front, but what they have delivered here is more than anyone could have possibly anticipated. Starting things is an audio commentary with producers Larry Spiegel and Judy Goldstein moderated by Calum Waddell that does a fine job of covering the development and physical production of Remo Williams in exhaustive detail. Another nice audio bonus is an isolated music & effects track.
"Remo, Rambo, Reagan and Reds: The Eighties Action Movie Explosion" (66 minutes) is a very interesting extra that is only related to Remo Williams as it explores action filmmaking in the 1980's and how certain movies were impacted by the political and social climate of the era. Remo producers Spiegel and Goldstein are interviewed for this documentary in addition to directors Sam Firstenberg (American Ninja) and Mark L. Lester (Commando), producers Don Borchers (Angel) and Garrick Dion (Drive), filmmaker and scholar Howard S. Berger, Professor Susan Jeffords, and genre expert Bey Logan. The topics range from the rise of stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bronson, and Chuck Norris to how the post-Vietnam fever of rabid patriotism shaped the decade's most popular action flicks.
"When East Met West" (10 minutes) brings in co-star Joel Grey to reminisce about getting the role of Chiun and the work he put into playing a convincing Korean martial artist. His stories are warm and informative. Make-up artist Carl Fullerton is next for the featurette "Changing Faces" (11 minutes) where he shares his stories of working on the production and with Grey to create the right look for Chiun. Finally, "Notes for a Nobleman" (13 minutes) has composer Craig Safan on to talk about his experiences creating the original music score for Remo Williams, in particular the individual character themes. The original theatrical trailer (3 minutes) closes out the disc-based bonus features.
Arrow's Blu-ray will also include a reversible cover sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by The Red Dress and a collector's booklet featuring a new essay on the film written by Barry Forshaw and an on-set report from American Cinematographer magazine.
Once again Arrow Video outclasses the competition in every area when it comes to Blu-ray releases. What should have been the kick-off to a continuing series of escapist thrill rides, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins still remains a hugely entertaining two hours well spent. Recent news of a Shane Black-directed reboot of The Destroyer series for the big screen will hopefully revive interest in the first attempt at bringing the books to celluloid, and Arrow's Blu-ray presentation is currently the only way to go.