Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
The title of this rather stolid and cheesy 80’s actioner proved inauspicious as the adventure ended here and so did the intended franchise based on The Destroyer series of pulp paperback novels about a Newark cop framed for a crime and then having his appearance altered and identity changed so he can become an assassin for a secret government organisation.
To this end he is trained in a fictional martial art called Sinanju by a Korean master called Chiun who is actually played by a white man in extreme yellowface (which is where we come in). Sinanju training enables one to hold one’s breath for over an hour, rip steel doors from their hinges, climb walls, dodge bullets (even at point-blank range), overturn a moving tank, outrun a car, seem invisible, overcome multiple opponents, and bring a woman to the heights of sexual ecstasy. We don’t see all of those in this film but we do see most of them and the last one is somewhat anti-climactic if you’ll pardon the expression.
The film is but minutes old when we’re confronted by some truly hideous looking prosthetics. These though are not the yellowface variety but the ones applied to Fred Ward as the eponymous Remo before he’s called Remo and before he gets his face-lift. Ward has proved himself a solid character actor down the years, blessed as he is with craggy charm in abundance. This though is not a very well written role and it’s difficult to warm to him, as it is to the entire film being, as it is, not action-packed enough to thrill, not funny enough to amuse and not a good enough story to compel. There’s some rather perfunctory flirtation with Kate Mulgrew’s awkwardly cast army major but the whole thing feels as flat as a pancake sadly.
The film though did garner a Golden Globe nomination for Joel Grey as Chiun and this in itself is probably quite revealing as to why there’s often such a reluctance to relinquish the right to yellowface because, as with playing disabled people, it offers the kind of dramatic transformation opportunities that trumpets loudly to the viewer what a great actor they’re watching.
Grey (a terrific actor who was rightly lauded for his turn as the MC in Cabaret) plays Chiun like an effeminate bird who mangles his l’s and r’s all over the place while his accent wonders across several hemispheres. Word to the wise, Joel; as any East Asian actor will tell you, if the dialogue ain’t written well that shit ain’t easy, blud.
Being a mystical chop sock “Oriental” he is of course endowed with sage-like wisdom and rather awkwardly realised eccentric “charm”.
His basic model appears to be Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid films (the 80’s variety), though Mr. Miyagi was of course portrayed by a genuine East Asian (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) which helped offset the contrived orientalism of the clumsy characterisation. At one point Remo asks Chiun if he always speaks like a “fortune cookie”, the one bit of penetrative wit in the entire picture because he does indeed seem to communicate in nothing but hodge-podge Zen Confucian truisms. He is buried under horrendously ugly prosthetic make-up to make his eyes slant and his skin yellow. It is in short a train wreck of a performance. Oh, and the make-up was nominated for an Oscar. I kid you not.
There is the vague notion at times that Chiun might turn out to be a threat (at one point he reassures Remo that if he has to kill him he will only do so “rerructantry”)… …and other times there’s a bit of moist-eyed “bromance” between the two characters… …but mostly he’s a funny little foreign chap lent some added cool by the fact he can dodge bullets.
At one point we’re treated to the following exchange between Chiun, Remo & Major Kate-
Chiun: “Women-a should stay home and make-a babies…plefelably man-child”
Major Kate: “I see you both went to the same charm school!”
Remo: “Oh, he always talks like that. He’s Korean!”
Fave scene? Gotta admit, the one where Remo uses the diamond in a villains tooth (without removing it) to cut a hole in a glass wall was pretty sick.
Tomorrow sees our final Yellowface Film Review and sees us assail yet another Ghengis Khan bloodbath. Meantime there are just THREE MORE PERFORMANCES in which to catch The Fu Manchu Complex “a devilishly ironic spin on Sax Rohmer’s classic novel that will leave you in hysterics”(The Upcoming) at Ovalhouse. BOOK TICKETS NOW http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex