Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the action movie, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. When you subtitle a movie with something like “The Adventure Begins” you are sending a clear message to audiences of your intention to make sequels. The idea was that Remo Williams would be the American equivalent of James Bond with a long-running film series to rival 007. But if Remo Williams was comparable to any Bond, it was George Lazenby. Because after only one movie, he was done. The adventure ended as soon as it began
The movie was based on a series of paperback novels called The Destroyer. The hero of the books was a Newark cop who was framed for a crime and sentenced to death. But his sentence was never carried out. Instead, his death was faked and he was recruited by a secret government organization called CURE. Form there, he is trained to be an assassin by his mentor, Chiun. The books got into some pretty “out-there” story lines that pitted the assassin against cyborgs, shape-shifters and vampires.
The first movie basically told the hero’s origin story. Fred Ward, who was in his mid-forties at the time, played the unlikely action hero. Joel Grey, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio and is of Jewish decent, played Ward’s mentor, Chiun. Chiun was supposed to be an 80-year-old Korean, so Grey was required to undergo four hours of make-up a day in order to appear Asian. Or they could have hired an actor of Asian decent, but I guess in the mid-eighties it was more practical to spend four hours a day making a white guy look like an elderly Korean.
Even Grey was skeptical. He turned down the role repeatedly because he didn’t feel he was right for the part. Not only was he the wrong age and race, Grey had no martial arts training whatsoever. Even after being cast, Grey didn’t receive any training. But he did agree to take the part after a private screen test with make-up artist Carl Fullerton. Fullerton’s make-up work on Remo Williams earned him an Oscar nomination.
Much of the movie was devoted to Williams’ training as a master assassin. The character is being trained in the martial art of Sinanju. Reportedly, several actors who auditioned for the lead role claimed to be proficient in the technique. What these actors didn’t realize is that Sinanju was a fictional form of martial arts created by the authors of the Destroyer novels.
The movie was produced by Orion Pictures, a studio which was run by some of the same people responsible for launching the Bond franchise at United Artists. They were reasonably confident that they could recreate the successful Bond formula with an American lead. The idea was that they would release a Remo Williams adventure every other year.
To that end, they hired frequent Bond director, Guy Hamilton, and signed him to a two-picture deal. They also hired Christopher Wood who wrote the Bond movie Moonraker to write the screenplay. Although Hamilton claims he later rewrote much of Wood’s script including the addition of the climactic battle on the Statue of Liberty.
Plans for sequels were short-lived. Remo Williams opened to mixed reviews in October of 1985. At the box office, it opened in fourth place behind the Stephen King adaptation, Silver Bullet. The top spots were help by Commando and Jagged Edge. Remo Williams was within $100,000 dollars of being beaten out by Back to the Future which had been in theaters for fifteen weeks by that point! By the end of its run, Remo Williams had grossed less than $15 million dollars which was not enough for his adventures to continue. At least, not on film.
Three years later, Remo Williams was adapted for television. The pilot starred Jeffrey Meek as the hero and Roddy McDowall as Chiun. The pilot was a direct follow-up to the movie and reused some of the footage from the movie in the opening credits. But once again, the adventure ended prematurely as the pilot was not picked up to series.
In 2014, writer-director Shane Black announced that he was going to take a crack at adapting the Destroyer novels. So perhaps more than three decades later, the adventures of Remo Williams really will continue.