Movies To Watch With Your Dad: “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…”
In 1984 when bit-much PG-rated movies such as Gremlins and Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom necessitated an in-between rating that wasn’t quite family-friendly and wasn’t quite nonstop boobs and f-words, it was an intriguing prospect to my sheltered young mind to ponder what illicit material the new and much ballyhooed PG-13 rating might contain. Would we get one (1) boob, or part of a boob? A buttcheek quadrant, mayhap? One f-word? Other new swears or dirty sex parts I didn’t know about yet? What inappropriate wonders would this new rating reveal, and would they be at all useful in the shower later?
My first PG-13 movie turned out to be 1985’s Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, and while anyone who has seen the film knows exactly just how non-conducive to self-pleasuring any of the content within its generous running time most assuredly is (unless one were extraordinarily hard up for material, or had a thing for Dobermans or Wilford Brimley – I’m not here to judge, folks), my God, was that thing entertaining. I knew, and continue to know, nothing of the by many accounts very enjoyable series of books created by Warren Murphy upon which the film is loosely based, but this grimily lensed tale of a dirtbag cop (professional dirtbag – and strong contender for my favorite actor of all time – Fred Ward) revived from a near-fatal beating, renamed courtesy of a nearby bedpan, and rehabilitated by a Korean master of Sinanju (the extremely unKorean Joel Grey) under the auspices of aforementioned computer-starer-atter Brimley and a guy with a robot hand (J.A. Preston) to become a human weapon, able to run on wet cement, fight bad guys on the Statue of Liberty (then under reconstruction in arguably the film’s most iconic scene), and dodge bullets, all in an attempt to bring down a dastardly businessman (Charles Cioffi) who insists on bilking and injuring/killing the U.S. Army with weapons that are both overpriced and defective makes a strong case for checking them out one of these days.
That seems like quite a bit for a young mind to take in, but none of that nonsense is of any particular import when Ward and Grey are so goofily entertaining in their many scenes together. Much of the film’s first half consists of Remo’s unorthodox training, with Grey’s crotchety and wisecrack-prone Chiun constantly berating the ungainly and uncooperative Remo and occasionally even discharging firearms at him while the reluctant student repeatedly injures himself trying to complete a series of physically demanding obstacle courses. It’s hard to avoid comparisons to The Karate Kid, especially considering all the fortune cookie philosophy going on (one of my favorites being “The trained mind does not need a watch. Watches are a confidence trick invented by the Swiss.”) but with (almost) no sentimentality to drag it down, one is free to simply enjoy the verbal abuse and increasing tension on display, and for my money the two leads truly manage to develop something of a Lemmon–Matthau vibe that elevates some of the weaker scripted interplay.
Despite the best efforts of Remo and other offbeat franchise attempts such as 1982’s Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (co-written by ex-Monkee and MTV visionary Michael Nesmith), audiences would never quite buy Ward as a leading man. His permanent scowl and lowdown squint relegated him to the scary stepdad, or the untrustworthy partner, the typical resume of the average, unconventionally handsome character actor. No matter. He makes the most of his brief moment in the sun, grumbling Popeye-esque complaints and observations while evading/abusing baddies (at one point using the studded diamond in a thug’s still-quite-attached tooth to break through a glass partition) and unsmoothly hitting on Kate Mulgrew, of all people, playing a Major who joins the unnerving but effective team of Remo and Chiun, despite the former’s lewd advances and the latter’s sexist outbursts. Remo isn’t any more of a born hero than Ward, and while audiences of the time might have preferred a Harrison Ford or Sly Stallone (and the box office returns would have certainly proven less disappointing), the film would have suffered in the long term.
Nobody wants a white guy to play a Korean guy if it can helped (and I can think we can all readily agree that it can) but Grey doesn’t veer too far into Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s territory here. The 80’s will never be an era renowned for its sensitive treatment of Asian culture in cinema, but Grey is a deft performer who imbues Chiun with a rascally sensibility that makes him very difficult to dislike, even when dutifully turning his L’s to R’s and barking hateful vitriol at Captain Janeway, and the makeup is less distracting than it has any right to be, even garnering an Academy Award nomination for makeup artist Carl Fullerton.
Why do you wanna watch this with your Dad? Well, it ticks just about every box on the Dad checklist: plenty of action of both the hand-to-hand and firepower variety (it’s important that Dads have a little of both), grizzled antihero, weird training montages, foul-mouthed comic relief sidekick…I don’t know, friggin’ Wilford Brimley? Remo was a staple of our modest “nothing good on TV” VHS library, and Dad and I watched it a bunch, adopting several of Chiun’s insults for our own usage in everyday conversation. I mean, if you can’t tell your dad that he walks like a baboon with two club feet every now and then, you’re really not getting the most out of your relationship. Here’s a very poor picture of him getting the DVD from me for Christmas several years ago. This may have been the second or third time he received it. We’re not sure. It was always a welcome surprise nonetheless.
Also here is the excellent theme song “Remo’s Theme (What If?)” as performed by Tommy Shaw of Styx. I used a boombox to record this song playing over the end credits off of a dubbed VHS my uncle gave me because he was rich and had two VCRs. Decades later when Napster first came out and everyone was telling me how it had every song imaginable, I tested that claim by searching for this song. Hearing the opening chords stream out of my folks’ tinny little speakers, never before or since have the past and future been so mystically and satisfyingly intertwined.
On a related note, you move like a pregnant yak.