Guess what turned up on Netflix Streaming recently? (The subject header above is a subtle hint.) Yep, it’s the 1985 non-classic REMO WILLIAMS, starring Fred Ward. Apparently, the film is based on a series of men’s adventure novels that I haven’t read and never will, so whatever. It’s the movie I want to talk about. Remo’s adventure might have begun with that picture, but it didn’t go any farther. (I live in the happy world where the TV pilot doesn’t exist.)
Anyway, I saw this movie a great many times in the bong-fueled haze of post-college daytime cable and I loved it. Watching it again last week with my family reminded me how charming and fun it is.
It also brought back how completely fucked up this movie it. Seriously.
First, have this: How to be a fan of problematic things. It’s a good article written from the perspective of a person fighting for social justice who’s following GAME OF THRONES. Even if you’re not such a person, it’s worth reading.
And it applies to REMO in spades.
Let’s talk briefly about the setup: Fred Ward is a tough NYC street cop who is “killed” in the first few minutes of the movie. He wakes up in a hospital bed with a new face and identity; he’s been recruited by a secret government organization headed by Wilford Brimley. Why?
Brimley’s character sums it up like this: “This is a great country, my boy, but the justice system doesn’t work the way it should.” I know what you’re thinking, right? They’re going to reform the justice system!
Actually, no. They’re an assassination squad operating domestically under the direct control of the president. The only limits to their power is that they must never “embarrass the president.” That’s it. They investigate people and, if they have too much money/power to be prosecuted, they arrange a convincing “accident.”
To effect this plan, Ward is to be trained in the ancient and mysterious martial art of sinanju, which will allow him to dodge bullets, run without touching the ground, and other goofiness.
If that were the end of it, REMO would be little different from other odd 80’s action movies about heroic vigilantes. Unfortunately, the elderly Korean master who teaches Ward is played by… Joel Gray.
Yeah. It’s a white guy in yellowface.
Here’s the thing. The yellowface makeup was nominated for an Oscar. Gray’s performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination. If he’d done a shitty job in the role this would be an utterly forgettable movie. Actually, until Gray appears onscreen, it IS a forgettable movie. Ward is charismatic. Kate Mulgrew is terrific as a major in the army trying to prove that the bad guys are breaking the law. But until Gray appears as Chiun, the movie feels rote. I watched this with my kid and I had to beg him to stick with it. By the end, he was laughing and giving it a thumbs up.
Gray and Ward have fantastic chemistry together; their scenes (which are mostly amusing training sequences of one kind or another) are pretty much the only heart the movie has.
So, you know, it’s complicated. It’s a terrible idea to cast a white dude in yellowface to play the part of a Korean man. It’s certainly possible that an Asian actor could have done just as good as job as the prickly, obnoxious, condescending Chiun. But we don’t live in that world; we live in the world where Joel Gray got the part and did a fantastic job with it.
Anyway, the movie’s on Netflix Streaming. It’s problemmatic, but I’m a fan of it anyway.