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When Hollywood tried (and failed) to forge its own James Bond franchise

Looking back at this pre-Bourne “blue-collar Bond” wannabe. His name? Williams, Remo Williams

Every movie studio dreams of having a long-running film series to call its own, particularly in the modern risk aversion, multiverse-building Hollywood landscape. Back in the mid-eighties, Orion Pictures – a subsidiary of United Artists Corporation – thought they were onto a sure thing when they set about crafting essentially their own version of James Bond. Like Ian Fleming’s creation, Orion’s intended film was adapted from the series of popular action espionage ‘Destroyer’ novels, the first of which was initially published in the early seventies, focusing on a US government operative named Remo Williams. The studio’s aims of creating by their own admission “a red, white and blue-collar Bond” was further signposted by bringing veteran Bond director Guy Hamilton on board to direct. Even the film’s full title, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, suggested that there was confidence that the material could have longevity.

Remo Williams (Fred Ward) grabbing throats and taking names

Unfortunately the studio’s plans feel at the first hurdle when the film earned a measly $3.4 million during that all important four day opening weekend. Viewing the film it’s certainly easy to see why it didn’t fly. Yet amongst its numerous issues, there’s an intriguing protagonist and origin story fighting to get out. The film begins with the death of an honest and hard-working war-hero-turned cop (an awkward-looking Fred Ward) being faked by a shadowy government agency. Waking up to find his face has been surgically-altered – cinematic shortcut: moustache shaved off and new haircut – the cop has also been given the eponymous new identity and a role within the organisation who orchestrated his supposed demise. Assisted by head spook Wilford Brimley and his all-seeing super computer – which resembles a clunky prototype of YouTube – Remo is put under the guidance of an elderly zen-like Korean martial arts expert, Chiun (played by Cabaret’s Joel Gray, complete with eyelid prosthesis and vaguely offensive Far East accent).

Remo and his wizened mentor, Chiun (Joel Grey)

While the film does feature a couple of impressively staged action set-pieces, Remo Williams is far from a lavish Bond-like jolly, and aesthetically-speaking, it largely resembles an extended episode of an eighties US action show. You half expect to see that freeze-frame executive producer credit at the very end. The plodding narrative, combined and the film’s uninvolving and poorly-defined villains also do little to transcend that small-screen feel. Perhaps the issue stemmed from the source material which, unlike the relatively grounded world which Fleming created for his protagonist, the Destroyer books spiral off into all kinds of otherworldly exploits featuring outlandish villains which make Bond advisories like Jaws and Francisco Scaramanga models of respectability and calm by comparison. Any attempts at delving into Remo’s fractured psyche – his conception is decidedly Bourne-like – are completely jettisoned in the film for broad action beats, and his sudden upheaval and new life as a patriotic US assassin is never addressed in a thoughtful or interesting way.

Remo straddling the Statue of Liberty in one of the film’s fun action set-pieces

The Adventure Begins has developed a cult following since it was first released, and despite the film’s lack of big screen success, a TV spin-off pilot arrived a couple of years later, which managed to remain just that. But even as recently as last year, Destroyer superfan Shane Black stated that the Remo script he was hire to work on back in 2014 by Sony Pictures was still on the boil, although events may have changed following Black’s Predator debacle. Whatever happens with the material in future, like latter-day Bond, it could work if conceived as a grittier interpretation of the character, although conversely, given the pulp-y, comic book tone of the novels, perhaps a Marvel-like exploit is the right path to take. Whatever the outcome, they have this 1985 folly as an example of how not to launch a potential franchise.

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