Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

I’m not really a believer in the concept of a “guilty pleasure”. I like enough stupid stuff from all across the spectrum that there’s really no other way to handle it all other than to embrace the assorted flaws and failings of it all, and just love it unironically. And yet still, with REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS and the series of books which inspired it, THE DESTROYER series, some of the material has aged so badly in the intervening years (and some of it was touch-and-go even when it was first issued) that I do feel a need to speak to it all. But make no mistake, I’m a big fan of these books and of the flawed 1985 film based on them. So let’s get right into things.

I first came to the DESTROYER books around 1982, in a bit of a roundabout way. I had begun to watch DOCTOR WHO after my family had relocated to Delaware for my father’s job, where various stations were running it in time periods where I could catch it. Prompted by that growing interest, I wound up purchasing one or two of the DOCTOR WHO novelizations. These weren’t the releases put out by Target Books in the UK, but rather they were the text of those books licensed for distribution in the United States by a company called Pinnacle. Pinnacle was one of the leaders in the serialized men’s adventure series boom of the 1970s, and their books could be found in candy stores and truck stops and drug stores and stationary shops all across the land. They had hit real paydirt with THE EXECUTIONER and were constantly looking to expand their horizons by adding on additional series of novels. Picking up DOCTOR WHO was just one such attempt on their part–and one that didn’t quite pan out for them at the time.

I’m pretty certain that it was in the back of this book, DOCTOR WHO AND THE DOOMSDAY WEAPON, that I came across it. In an attempt to cross-promote their line, Pinnacle had added in a section at the very end about THE DESTROYER. It wasn’t a book excerpt, but rather an essay by Ric Meyers extolling the particular virtues of the series with a few brief choice excerpts. It did its job, because I was suitably intrigued, enough so that on our next regular Saturday morning family trip to the public library (yes, we did those in my family) I took out three DESTROYER paperbacks: the first, #12 and #20, the only ones they had available that day. As everybody familiar with this series will tell you, the first book is awful; it took co-authors Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy about three books to figure out what they were doing and how to start making it work–but once they hit their groove, everything swiftly falls into place.

The premise of the series is very simple, elegantly so; years ago, with crime and lawlessness on the rise, a never-quite-named John F. Kennedy created the top-secret organization called CURE (which wasn’t an acronym) that would work outside the bounds of the Constitution in order to protect it. This organization is ultimately composed of just three men: Harold W. Smith, an ex-CIA analyst with an expertise in the nascent science of computers who is able to compile and analyze the information flowing through all of the databases in the world; Remo Williams, the titular Destroyer, a cop from Newark, New Jersey who is framed and executed for a crime he didn’t commit in order to recruit him into CURE; and Chiun, the latest and last Master of Sinanju, the original fighting art from which all others are descended, who trains Williams, giving him skills that are superhuman and ushering him into a world of mysticism and mystery. One of the beauties of the series is that, like LUPIN III, once you understand the core characters, you can pretty much jump in anywhere.

These were fast, breezy books, especially in the 1970s where the idea was to release with regularity. When I came in, there were a total of 49 books in the series, and I went through them at a clip of ten a week, supplied in my efforts by our local used book emporium called the Bookateria. They would sell the paperbacks at half off, and you could get credit for bringing books in to them, so I started with the first ten books and cycled my way through them all.

What makes the DESTROYER series work, really, is the relationships between the characters, in particular that between the street-savvy-but-dim Remo and the carping Jewish mother Chiun. And make no mistake about it, these books push the same buttons that super hero comics do–to the point where there are continuing subplots and recurring villains. In addition, while the discipline of Sinanju starts off as being just a really good martial art, it quickly becomes more of that, transforming Remo and Chiun into superhumans capable of performing feats the equal of anything put on the four-color page.

And now comes the quasi-apology. It must be said that these stories are very much a product of their time, and focused on a particular audience of mainstream white men. Which is to say, they are often racist as hell, particularly the ones written in the 1970s. Their politics also tend to swing broadly to the right, and while the writers (and their eventual ghost-writers) are pretty good about attempting to tar all sides equally, their scorn for those on the left is readily apparent no matter where you jump in. Additionally, women don’t fare well in this series at all–these were men’s sweat releases after all, even if they eventually outlived that era. Most of the first 50 books have a “perfunctory sex scene” in which Remo gets it on with whatever lovely happens to be in that particular installment–his Sinanju training having unlocked the secret steps to bringing a woman to unequaled heights of ecstasy.

So why do I like them? Well, for all of these drawbacks, I really do like the mythology of the House of Sinanju. It was founded thousands of years ago in a fishing village on the Korean bay where starvation was so rampant that any newborn children were left to die on the beach–“sending the babies back to the sea”, to be born in a more fruitful time. Looking for a means of support, the men of Sinanju hired themselves out as mercenaries and assassins, and became renowned for their skills even before one of their number, the Great Wang, discovered the Sun Source of the martial arts–the secret to unlocking the full power that lay within the body and the mind. From that point forward, there was only ever a single Master of Sinanju and his pupil and eventual heir, who would support the village through their toil. For centuries, the House of Sinanju provided service to the kings and pharaoh of the world. But in modern times, with war becoming a global business and technology supplanting the ways of old, the assassin business has dried up. In addition, Chiun’s pupil betrayed his oath, striking out on his own for personal power and glory while leaving Sinanju to rot. It was only this fact that prompted Chiun to take on the assignment of training Remo, a white man, in the secrets of Sinanju. That and the prophesy.

Upon his appointment as Master, the Great Wang had spoken of a Master who would one day succeed him, a dead man who was the avatar of the Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer, and who would bring about a transformation for Sinanju. Remo is, of course, the fulfillment of this prophesy, and at times he either channels or is displaced by the spirit of Shiva inside him. None of this sits well with Harold Smith, who is profoundly rational and lacking in imagination, and who is a bit unsettled at the thought that some cosmic something may have been manipulating events to get CURE to recruit Remo. Because CURE’s existence can never become known to the world–if it does, that would be an admission that Democracy doesn’t work. And so not only does Smith carry a poison pill with him at all times (and uses it unsuccessfully on a number of occasions) but part of the contract also states that Chiun must kill Remo should Smith order it. Chiun’s own understanding of the organization and Democracy is so sketchy that he isn’t considered a security risk; plus, what could possibly kill him?

THE DESTROYER survived the paperback series glut of the 1970s as well as at least three publishers, running for a total of 149 releases. In recent years, an additional four books were penned, mostly by young authors working with Warren Murphy’s consent (Richard Sapir, alas, died back in the 1980s). They’ve become regular train reading for me, given my extremely long commute every day. And like when I approached the series in the early 80s, I’ve been reading them haphazardly, jumping around to whatever book catches my attention when I finish the latest one. I’ve found that it’s a good way to get a sense of the series as a whole.

All of which brings us finally to REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS, the 1985 film that attempted to bring the characters from THE DESTROYER to life on the silver screen.

REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS was intended by its producers to be the start of a series, obviously–hence the terrible name. Many of the principles had been involved in making the James Bond movies, and saw REMO as a potential successor series–what one memorably called a “red, white and blue collar Bond.” It was a relatively expensive picture for its time, helming a budget of $40 million that still wasn’t enough, and so its third act was scaled back considerably. And it was a massive bomb at the box office. I remember seeing it on opening Friday, and the theater was just about deserted.

Some of that was a byproduct of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The DESTROYER books are, by their nature, pretty violent affairs, but the producers were looking to hit a PG-13 rating, and so they chose to emphasize the humor over the action. Additionally, they dropped the DESTROYER name and made additional changes to the storyline, presumably to make it a bit more mainstream-friendly. The promotion for the movie was haphazard at best. The trailer and assorted television commercials that still exist on YouTube do nothing to make you want to run out and hit up your local cinema. Additionally, despite having gotten there more than a decade earlier, REMO WILLIAMS was beaten out by THE KARATE KID in the “white guy trained in the martial arts by an Asian master” derby, so it couldn’t help but feeling like a knock-off of that film.

Remo is played affably by Fred Ward, who is maybe just a hair too old to be the Remo of the books. He’s best remembered these days from his turn in TREMORS, and he brings the same sense of comedic timing to his tongue-in-cheek role here. The role of Harold Smith was given to Wilford Brimley, who essentially played it as just another Wilford Brimley character. All of the specificity of the Smith of the books is gone. J.A. Preston plays Conn MacCleary, the doomed agent who frames Remo and brings him into the fold. A pre-STAR TREK VOYAGER Kate Mulgrew is done no favors by the part of Major Rayner Fleming, the relatively flat female lead. And in a controversial move even at the time, the part of Chiun is not played by a Korean actor, but rather dancer and performer Joel Grey under pounds of yellow-face make-up. Remarkably, the production won awards for the Chiun make-up.

After its disastrous box office run, REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS became a staple of the cable television circuit. Rare was a week throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s when you couldn’t find it playing somewhere, on some channel or other. It became something of a minor cult hit, a bit of 1980s action movie cheese that was fun and undemanding. It also had a rather wonderful and dramatic score by composer Craig Safan–the sort of music that immediately gets the blood pumping. I’ve been listening to it intermittently this past week on YouTube in preparation for writing this piece.

And Ward and Grey are fun together–any time they share a scene, the film works. Fortunately, this is an origin movie, so they get to share much of the middle of the picture. It’s only when Remo goes on assignment that the two are separated, and those stretches tend to veer towards the dull. Another major misfire in the screenplay is the fact that the bad guy is a nobody. He’s a defense contractor who is producing sub-standard weapons and bilking the government–hardly the stuff of high adventure. So the plot itself is kind of nowhere. But the training of Remo and the interactions between him and his trainer Chiun are enough to help carry things through.

There’s also a rather astonishing fight staged atop the Statue of Liberty that forms the centerpiece of the films second act. Now, this was back in the days before computer effects were in use, so it’s worthwhile to remember that they did all of this stuff practically. Some of that included building a one-up replica of the Statue’s head and arm for the studio shoot. But an amazing amount of this sequence was filmed on the actual Statue itself, and it’s breathtaking. This all came about during the period in which the Statue was being cleaned and maintained, so there’s scaffolding everywhere, which makes things a bit easier. But there’s still some incredible stuntwork in evidence here.

ADDITION: Will Murray, who would know, tells me that the replica of the Statue’s head was constructed outside of Mexico City, rather than on a studio soundstage.

So, look, I can’t justify it. And I really don’t feel that great a need to, for all of the previous verbiage. This is one of those films that I’ll stop and watch whenever I happen to come across it. It’s a bit of a wreck, and it has all of the failings of its era, but its heart was in the right place and it’s still entertaining despite its many flaws. Nobody’s ever going to hail it as a classic or anything, but it’s a film that I have a real soft spot for, which is more than I can say about a lot of the other fare that was coming out at around this same time.

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