At the beginning of "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins . . .," the camera pans down from the Brooklyn Bridge to a black-mustachioed policeman, sitting in his patrol car, listening to the Knicks game on his radio. The cop reaches up and takes a sip of coffee from a plain Styrofoam cup.
Now, the mustache is right, but it's well known that New York cops, as a matter of principle (and possibly police regulation), only drink coffee out of blue and white paper cups bearing the legend "It's Our Pleasure to Serve You" beneath an artist's rendering of the Parthenon. And if you needed it, there's the tip-off on a movie that doesn't do anything right.
But wait a minute . . . when does the adventure begin?
A top-secret group led by Smith (Wilford Brimley) and MacCleary (a nicely glowering J.A. Preston), who report only to the president, fakes the cop's murder and kidnaps him. "Everywhere you look," you see, "slime is on the loose"; "our legal system doesn't work the way it should," and these boys have some cleaning up to do. They surgically alter the cop's features, remove his fingerprints and christen him Remo Williams (Fred Ward) -- under the tutelage of Korean martial arts expert Chiun (Joel Grey), he'll become their secret weapon.
Hold on -- it says here "the adventure begins."
Brimley, giving a performance as droopy as his mustache, sits punching at a computer, which shows us the villain, George Grove (Charles Cioffi), a defense department contractor who is "good, real good" at doing all sorts of bad, real bad things. We watch a graph of the costs of one of Grove Industries' weapons systems go up, up, up across the computer screen -- finally, a movie about fighting defense cost overruns!
For all of you who have muttered, "Les Aspin wears combat boots" (and I know you're out there), now he does.
Yeah, but what about that adventure that's supposed to begin?
In what seems to be a direct lift from "The Karate Kid," Grey -- who should be grateful for the heavy Oriental makeup because people won't realize it's Joel Grey -- runs Remo through a maddening training course, which seems to consist of insults, steamed rice and running on the beach. Don't try this at home, boys and girls, but by the end of it Remo is able to dodge bullets. Chiun's supposed to be quaintly funny -- he (ha ha) watches soap operas and (ho ho) hates junk food ("You know why Americans call it fast food? Because it speeds them on their way to the grave"). Which leaves the generally riveting Ward little but a series of reaction shots in which he alternately fumes indignantly or laughs indulgently. The fuming indignantly is the part you identify with.
So when's that darn adventure begin?
Guy Hamilton, who directed four of the James Bond movies, "structures" the movie as a series of arbitrary set pieces, situations that don't grow out of the story: It's just, "Wouldn't it be neat if there was a chase on the scaffolding around the Statue of Liberty?" Chiun emphasizes that the mark of a good assassination is making it look like an accident, but instead of the obvious (having Grove perish from one of his own defective weapons), Hamilton substitutes a big "cliffhanger" sequence that involves a large log that is, for some reason, suspended in midair on a trolley.
As an afterthought, a romantic element is added -- Kate Mulgrew as an Army major in the Lois Lane mold. But Ward makes no move for her, which is generally the problem with "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins . . . " -- Ward never makes any move at all. He's a blunderer. The most elementary requirement of an action movie is that the hero know the score, be in command -- it lends tension to the moments when he's not in command -- a requirement that screen writer Christopher Wood blithely neglects.
Aw, forget it -- just tell me when it ends. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins . . . " is rated PG-13 and contains some violence.