1985 in Film – Remo Unarmed and Dangerous

Release Date: October 11th
Box Office: $14,393,902

When you walked into a video shop there was generally a hierarchy to how the films were racked on the shelf. You’d get the newer films put in the middle to top shelves, at eye level, in order to attract people’s attention. As the shelves went down, whilst the amount of lurid box art might go up, the quality of the films would go down with them. Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous was always on a bottom shelf, even when it was brand new.

The film is actually based on a series of pulp action books, The Destroyerthat number into the 140s. Stretching back to 1971, the books tell tales about Remo Williams; he is a cop framed for a crime and sentenced to death. His death is faked by a shadowy government group called CURE who work outside of the law to defend the country. Remo is given a new face and sent off for training with Chiun, an assassin and last master of the martial art of Sinanju. They would face a wide and varied amount of enemies ranging from androids to Rasputin, most of said enemies not able to survive the considerable skills of Remo.

140 books. Jesus.

The film goes through the origin of Remo and, as you can tell by its alternate title Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was meant to kick off a franchise. Because after all, with 140 books, you have a fair old amount of stories to pick and choose from.

The cast is a mixed bag: you have Fred Ward as Remo, who at the time wasn’t exactly a star name; perennial character actor Wilfred Brimley shows up, fresh from his turn in Cocoon; future Captain of the USS Voyager Kate Mulgrew; “Judo” Gene LeBell as a random bad guy; and Joel Grey, best known as the Emmcee from Cabaret as Chiun.

That last one is a bit of a sticking point, in that Chiun is meant to be Korean and Grey is anything but Korean. Hence the make up and the accent and seriously we were still doing this in the mid eighties?

Young me didn’t really care though and was taken in by the daft shenanigans on screen. Remo wants to go to bed? He has to jump around a crazy Ninja Warrior style obstacle course to get there. He can use his crazy skills to run across wet concrete without leaving a mark? Sure, why not? His hands are trained until they’re so tough he can set a stick on fire by rubbing it between his fingers? Worked for me.

So it’s a slice of goofy fun, one that doesn’t really work. Ward is probably miscast in the lead; his best work would be seen in a few years as he tried to escape a load of Graboids only in that film you had Kevin Bacon to supply the charm. Ward is a bit too craggy for the lead, he isn’t someone who can properly sell the mad ninja skills that Remo acquires.

You can’t really fault it at a technical level what with the film being directed by Guy Hamilton. Let’s be honest, with Goldfinger the man helped to define the Bond template for decades. If anyone knows their way around a big stunt filled set pice based around the Statue of Liberty covered in scaffolding it’s him. The story just does’t sing as it should, it feels plodding when it should be pacy and boring when it should be excited.

As a relic of it’s era, it’s fine. There were lots of attempts to create a new Indiana Jones franchise and most missed the mark. Remo, despite his mastery of Sinanju, misses it as well. Even as a child I think I understood that, although whenever I’d see it on a low shelf I’d always move it up a bit just because.

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