The 80’s was a time of excess.
File that understatement along with others such as ‘Salma Hayak is attractive’ and ‘I enjoy dairy products.’
When the 80’s movie action ball really started rolling, you got the A group of Schwarzeneggar, Stallone and Willis, then the B group of Lundgren and Van Damme, then the C group of Dudikoff and Jackie Chan.
Way on down the alphabet, somewhere around the weird numbers like ‘Q,’ you’ll find Fred Ward as Remo Williams.
The movie is subtitled ‘The Adventure Begins’ because it was based on a ‘men’s adventure series’ of books with names like ‘The Destroyer.’ It was intended to be the first of a series, but since the first movie never really caught fire the series was abandoned.
There are a couple reasons why the movie didn’t catch fire–the action scenes are lackluster, the villain not that engaging (although he could have been; he’s an arms manufacturer creating faulty weapons and scamming the US military), and the movie gets off to a slow start.
But before we get too much into it, let’s talk about the elephant in the room:
Chiun is Williams’s Korean mentor, teaching him everything from martial arts to what not to eat (hamburgers). From him Remo learns how to fight, how to climb stuff, how to dodge bullets and run on water.
The problem is that Chiun, though he is a fantastic character and his chemistry with Remo carries the film at times, is not an Asian man.
Not at all.
In what is either an inspired or monstrously insensitive casting choice, Chiun was played by veteran actor Joel Grey, best known as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret and father of 80’s actress Jennifer Grey. The makeup was so convincing that it was nominated for an academy award but lost to Mask.
The use of Yellowface in movies has rarely stirred the same kind of discussion that blackface has, yet it’s no less offensive to the minority it seeks to depict.
Now, there’s a place for it. I think part of what makes a good actor is the ability to create believable characters, and if you can create a character that’s nothing like yourself and it’s still compelling, you’ve done something. It’s probably little consolation that the filmmakers hired one of the best actors of the time to portray Chiun, mostly because there are real Asian actors struggling to get any work in Hollywood.
The bottom line for me is that I didn’t even know a white man played Chiun until I watched the movie last night, and I grew up watching this film. I saw Joel Grey’s name in the credits and thought ‘Huh, I wonder who he plays?’ Then I noticed how there were so few names in the opening credits, had a brainwave, and cringed. “Oh god, they DIDN’T.’
But they did. And you know what? Grey is pretty convincing. It helps that the character is actually well-written: Chiun is Korean, fiercely proud of his heritage and way of life, disdainful of Williams and his lazy American lifestyle, and when he isn’t training Williams is usually seen eating traditional Korean dishes, practicing calligraphy, or watching his soap operas. He is proud of what he’s accomplished with Williams, but would never admit it to the man’s face.
It helps that the film’s writers had dozens of books and some already well-fleshed out characters to draw on–again, it’s hard to accept that they were unable to find a Korean or at least Asian actor to portray Chiun, but I think they were looking for something other than complete authenticity. Remo Williams doesn’t necessarily wink at the audience, but there is some element of self-awareness to the film–it’s in the ludicrous stunts, and just in Fred Ward’s self-effacing, blustery performance. Hell, they got his name off the bottom of a bedpan!
Kate Mulgrew, best known as Janeway from…one of the Star Trek shows that is not Original Series or Next Generation and therefore I know nothing about, puts in a convincing performance as a Major investigating the corrupt arms dealer. It was weird seeing a strong, self-directed woman character in this movie, as entrenched in 80’s action cliches as it is, but there she was, a breath of fresh, ball-busting air.
Bottom line: Remo Williams is a weird, fun actioner ahead of its time in some ways, and strangely staid in others. Ward has a passing charm as a leading man, if only because of his blue-collar, hangdog approach to the world, and he clearly has done some of his own stunts–his face is easily viewable in a few scenes.
This movie has me interested in tracking down some of the books. Apparently there are over a hundred in the series by now, and they’ve been going since the 70’s–with such ample room for character development there’s probably a lot of good stuff being missed out on.
Remo Williams is available on Instant Watch.