Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

March 30, 2020

remowilliamsClearly, we are to assume from the title of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins . . . that this film is the first installment in what, if box-office receipts merit, will be a continuing series. It’s got the usual tendencies for such a series: action, humor, a clearly defined distinction between good and evil.

What Remo Williams lacks is any kind of adroitness at presenting these elements. And, more seriously, it doesn’t have the gumption to create a hero of its own; rather, this fellow Remo Williams is fashioned out of bits and pieces from various other movies.

There’s a large debt to Hitchcock, especially Saboteur and North by Northwest, and the Indiana Jones movies also have been an inspiration. But the most prominent bloodline of the film comes from James Bond – the director (Guy Hamiton) and scriptwriter (Christopher Wood) are both veterans of Bond films.

So 007 is the formula for this film – which means you can count on a series of splashy stunts and a hero who wisecracks more often than he uses a gun.

Remo Williams (the excellent  Fred Ward, from The Right Stuff) fulfills those requirements, but he’s entirely more down to earth than Bond. Williams is a former cop, without dapper clothes or good manners, who’s been recruited by a super-secret government agency.

He’s been recruited against his will, which is probably the only way this agency gets its employees. You see, their business is eliminating the bad guys, by whatever means necessary (including “extreme prejudice,” as they say), and they are answerable only to the president.

Williams is kidnapped and given a new identity. His superiors (Wilford Brimley and J.A. Preston) tell him that “You’re going to be the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not get away with it.'” They enlist him in some superhero training courses given by a mysterious chap named Chiun (Joel Grey, under a lot of convincing Asian makeup).

At this point, Remo Williams reaches for a different source of inspiration: the white-guy-getting-wisdom-from-an-Oriental-master plot, which recently proved sure-fire in “The Karate Kid.” Chiun imparts a lot of wise sayings to Remo; the gag here is that he’s also sort of cranky, and sometimes comes on like Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, telling Remo that “You move like a pregnant yak.”

He also tells Remo that “Professional assassination is the highest form of public service,” which the film seems to endorse, rather queasily.

Chiun teaches Remo how to dodge bullets and walk on water; most importantly, he teaches him how to keep his balance. This is crucial because the film comes up with every way it can think of to make Remo fall from on high: He walks along a building ledge, dangles from a Ferris wheel, has a big fight scene on the Statue of Liberty, and is carried along a tramway holding on to a tree.

This is in the course of training, and as part of his first assignment: wiping out a sleazy military contractor (Charles Cioffi).

Despite the attempts at humor, and a lot of reasons this bad guy should be eliminated, the film doesn’t quite come to grips with the fact that its hero is a professional killer. But then again, it probably doesn’t want to.

First published in the Herald, October 18, 1985

Okay, so first off, I totally get it that 35 years after this movie was made, viewers will likely find Joel Grey’s Asian make-up not only unconvincing but simply not the kind of thing you do. So I acknowledge that. It was a sequel-happy era, but even by the standards of 1985, tagging your movie with The Adventure Begins seems presumptuous. When it comes to would-be 80s franchises, I’ll take Action Jackson, thank you. Because my memories of this film, such as they are, are almost entirely of something lighter-than-air, I was surprised to be reminded that it’s from the “fun assassin” subgenre, which is a pretty tricky tone to bring off. 


The Rescue

March 24, 2020

rescue1Even though it’s only a silly action flick, The Rescue feels seriously out of date. If this thing had been released at the height of the 1984 flag-waving frenzy, when fantasy movies about hostage rescues were all the rage, then it might have had a chance.

But Chuck Norris no longer searches for the missing in action, and even Rambo has taken a header this summer. The Rescue is some sort of mid-’80s relic.

And a particularly ludicrously conceived one at that. When a crack American task force is captured on a secret mission off the coast of North Korea, the U.S. government chills a plan to go in and rescue them. As usual in these movies, the government is lily-livered and ineffective. (The unnamed president, we are assured, “would be in there in a minute” if it were up to him, but his hands are tied.)

While the American soldiers are languishing in a prison camp, their children – yes, their children – decide that it’s time to take matters into their own hands. So five spunky offspring steal the secret plans of the North Korean camp. And then they move in.

Audiences have been giggling for months now at this premise, as presented by coming-attractions trailers. (The idea is an echo of Iron Eagle, in which a teen stole a jet to nab his imprisoned father from a Middle Eastern hostage camp.) In full-length form, the concept isn’t much less ridiculous, especially in such moments as the kids putting aside the enormity of invading a hostile Communist country and inviting certain death in order to decide whether they should let a girl go along.

The kids involved are played by Kevin Dillon (Matt’s little brother, also on display this weekend in the remake of The Blob), Christina Harnos, Ned Vaughn, Mare Price and Ian Giatti. They are more-or-less serviceable, fulfilling the usual roles the moody one, the square one, the funny one, etc.

Two things can be said for this movie. One is that the locations are spectacular; ace cameraman Russell Boyd makes the mountains of New Zealand double for Korea.

The other thing is that Ferdinand Fairfax (Nate and Hayes) has directed it about as well as anyone could have, given the material. The script, by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, would be a tough assignment for any director with the slightest sense of the real world, but Fairfax actually puts some zip into a couple of sequences, and in the big prison-breakout scene, really works up a lather. But at that point, nothing can bust this film out.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

From this distance, the idea – kids rescuing their SEAL daddies – doesn’t sound especially strange, but then I’ve been worn down by decades of high concept. I note the participation of director Fairfax, whose Nates and Hayes does have some zip, and who went back into British TV after this for a nice long career (he died in 2008). The screenwriters had just come off the success of Predator.


The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus

March 23, 2020

reincarnationgoldenlotusMovies from Hong Kong have been exciting film festival audiences for the last few years. These films tend to be breathless joy rides through weird mythical/supernatural territory. The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus is no exception; it’s a typically wild outing.

Golden Lotus is even getting off the festival circuit (it was shown at the recent Seattle International Film Festival) and opening for a regular theatrical run. It’s slightly less insane than many of the Hong Kong movies, and even has a feminist undercurrent, courtesy of director Clara Law, a Hong Kong filmmaker by way of the National Film School in London.

It opens with a beautiful woman in ancient China, Golden Lotus (Joi Wong), carrying her severed head to the Gates of Hell, her life having just ended via decapitation. Then the story skips ahead to the 20th century, where Golden Lotus has been reincarnated as a young woman whose beauty keeps inspiring bad things to happen to her. (These sorts of century-leaps are not uncommon in Hong Kong films.)

Eventually she marries a dimwitted fellow who wears ugly floral sport coats, whose chauffeur happens to be the very man who brutally betrayed Golden Lotus years before.

Also, she meets a seductive fashion designer (played by an actor with an incredible name, Sin Lap Man), who engages her in some kinky sex.

The whole thing turns around until she finds herself with a centuries-old case of deja vu. The events that led to her beheading are repeating themselves in modern terms.

Does this sound confusing? It isn’t really, because the movie shoots along quickly enough to cover any murky plot points. Hollywood ought to sign the director up to make Gremlins 3.

First published in the Herald, summer 1990

This review reads as slightly drunk, I’m afraid, and it looks like another piece that might have been shortened for length. The name listed in (I assume) the film’s contemporary publicity as Joi Wong refers to the actress Joey Wang, star of A Chinese Ghost Story; and, although I know it sounds juvenile, I stand by my awe regarding the name Sin Lap Man. Clara Law (and filmmaking partner Eddie Fong) has been working since this film, but I’m sorry to say I know little of her work.


Blind Fury

February 13, 2020

blindfury“Well, well,” says the bad guy, “if it ain’t the walkin’ chop-o-matic.” That’s about the extent of the wit in Blind Fury, a new film about a very talented swordsman.

The walking chop-o-matic is a guy named Nick (what else?), who lost his eyesight in a mortar attack in Vietnam. Taken in by some mystically-oriented villagers, Nick was taught how to “see” despite his blindness, and how to handle a major­-league sword. When the story picks up in the present day, Nick is searching for an old Army buddy who is in trouble.

Nick takes his buddy’s son under his wing, and they go on a cross-country search for the father. They’re followed by thugs the entire time, but Nick – who can split a dragonfly in two just by listening for the buzz – is up to the challenge.

The movie is an excuse to mount enough fights to satisfy the crowd that supports kung fu movies, and to let Nick, played by Dutch star Rutger Hauer, show off some fancy swordsmanship. Martial-arts superstar Sho Kosugi makes a cameo appearance, and the movie also throws in ex­ prizefighter Randall “Tex” Cobb, who does his usual brawly schtick.

By now you’re probably wondering: A blind swordsman? What will they think of next? Well, actually, they didn’t even think of it this time; Blind Fury is based on a popular series of Japanese films about a blind samurai. This film doesn’t wear its cross-cultural pollination very well, as it veers between zen absurdity and redneck head-stompin’. Even the jokes seem like an awkward translation, except for two diverting low-life henchmen, who are so stupid they wind up knocking each other off.

Overall it’s pretty routine. I expected more from the director, Philip Noyce, an Australian who has displayed a thoughtful touch elsewhere (his previous film was the snappy Dead Calm). He doesn’t belong here.

First published in the Herald, March 17, 1990

I have to believe this review was cut for space, because it seems short, and I didn’t say anything about Rutger Hauer. The cast includes Terry O’Quinn, Lisa Blount, and Meg Foster. Someday ask me about the time I shared a 90-minute car ride with Philip Noyce from the Gdansk airport to a film festival in Bydgoszcz, without exchanging a word of conversation.

 


Flashpoint

December 10, 2019

flashpointFlashpoint is exactly the sort of nothing movie that gets thrown away in the post-blockbuster lull at the end of summer. It has almost no discernible box office potential, but it’s by no means a bad little film.

If it follows the usual life-span for a movie like this, it’ll probably last a couple of weeks in first-run houses, then fade quietly away. It’s likely few people will notice.

There is an intriguing idea at the heart of Flashpoint, and it’s the kind of gimmick that might have made a competent suspenser. But the film flops around from one thing to another, and never narrows down to the element on which it should concentrate.

It’s about a couple of Texas border policemen, one laid-back (Kris Kristofferson), one young and fiery (Treat Williams). The mainspring for the most interesting of their adventures is their discovery of a long-buried jeep with a surprise in the glove compartment: $800,000. They get set to go to Mexico with the cash, but questions nag. They’re determined to find out where the money came from, and then go down to Mexico with it.

As their search progresses  there’s evidence that the money – and the dead jeep driver – may have been connected with a certain famous political assassination. If this thread had been focused on, Flashpoint might have been one of those shamelessly fun “What If” movies. But all kinds of things are dragged in: an airplane drug bust, the computerization of the border patrol, a mysterious old man who lives at the edge of the desert.

Lamest of all are the totally unecessary love interests for Kristofferson and Williams, played – rather well – by Tess Harper and Jean Smart. They exist early on to establish the playful, good-ole-boy nature of the two men. After that, there’s not that much they can contribute to the story; in fact, they just get in the way of the potentially fruitful central plot.

But even given the aimlessness of some of the plot turns, the film is hardly a chore to watch. The director, William Tannen, making his first feature here after a career of directing award-winning commercials, consistently goes for pretty desert compositions, framing people against mesas and sagebrush. And he keeps things moving along – the film clocks in at just over 90 minutes.

Maybe he rushes too much. At the end, when we supposedly find out what the big secret was with the $800,000, it’s still not quite clear just how some of the people in the film were involved with it – or why everything’s hitting the fan at this particular moment.

The big revelation seems anti-climactic, since you’ve already figured it out if you’ve really been watching the movie and picking up clues. Possibly the filmmakers should have spilled their secret earlier gotten it out of the way, then gone more for suspense than mystery.

But these things didn’t happen. Speculating about them is just another “What If” game, like the movie: interesting, but ultimately irrelevant.

First published in the Herald, August 1984

Director Bill Tannen has had a long career, and his IMBd page notes his creation of the “Girl Watcher” ad campaign for Diet Pepsi; he later made a scattering of feature films, including Hero and the Terror, with Chuck Norris. I remember Flashpoint as a true oddity, a real How Did This Get Made? sort of experience – not bad, but strange. The cast includes Rip Torn, Miguel Ferrer, and Roberts Blossom; the music is by Tangerine Dream.

 


The Abyss

October 24, 2019

abyssIf you’ve never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon, or any other of the contact-with-­friendly-aliens movies of the last decade, then The Abyss may seem like a visionary film, a fabulous mix of action, science fiction, and wonder.

It may seem that way even if you have seen those other movies. But The Abyss, an expert and often evocative piece of action filmmaking, suffers from too much familiarity with these themes of alien awe.

That cavil noted, I hasten to applaud The Abyss as the top action movie of the year thus far. It’s the third movie since January to feature a plot about deep-sea workers trapped with major problems at the bottom of the ocean. But while the memory of Deepstar Six and Leviathan recedes into Z- movie cheesiness, The Abyss comes roaring at you with all the breathless ingenuity that writer-director James Cameron can muster.

That’s quite a bit.

Cameron is the fellow who created Aliens and The Terminator, and he’s an energetic, intelligent talent. The Abyss is his most ambitious effort, in more ways than one.

Most of the movie takes place underwater, at an oil-drilling station on the sea floor. When an American nuclear sub crashes nearby, the military asks the rig to help investigate. The boss (Ed Harris) isn’t thrilled, particularly when his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the sea station, comes down to supervise. He’s also suspicious of the grim Navy divers (led by Michael Biehn) who seem to have their own agenda.

The journey into the wrecked submarine, an unnerving graveyard of floating refuse and snow-white corpses, is just the beginning of the fun. The film’s full of crackling suspense in an old-fashioned movie way; at almost 2 1/2  hours, the forward motion never flags.

But Cameron is up to more than just adventure. The film is about two things: the exploration of non-terrestrial life (“something not us”), and the exploration of a foundering relationship. The Abyss is like a cross between Close Encounters and Scenes From a Marriage. The marriage of Harris and Mastrantonio is shown in broad but deeply felt strokes (and is well played by those two good actors).

Cameron and his own wife, Abyss producer Gale Ann Hurd, were breaking up during the shooting of this film. That must have made for an interesting production. Their marriage was not the only thing that became strained during the grueling, already notorious filming process. Conditions were so horrible that Ed Harris vowed never to talk about the movie at all. The complicated underwater scenes were shot inside a huge abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina, and the logistics were a practical nightmare.

Very little of this hardship comes across on screen; the film’s a technical marvel. Technical but human – Cameron knows just how to play off the big special effects with the personal story. It makes you wonder whether the supernatural elements that creep into the film were necessary at all. Despite the nature of his films, Cameron’s touch is for people, not aliens.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I wasn’t comparing The Abyss to Cocoon, but I do remember thinking that (in terms of subject matter) The Abyss had just missed being ahead of the curve. So that’s what that comment is about. I realize there might be some debate about my last line, since Cameron is not exactly lauded for his treatment of characters, but on the other hand, Titanic wasn’t entirely a smash because of special effects – at the very least, Cameron has a touch for archetypes. 


Stakeout

October 10, 2019

stakeoutVery few actors have ever come back from the dead quite as spectacularly as Richard Dreyfuss, whose career all but vanished after the one­-two punch of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl (he got the Oscar for the latter). It took close to a decade for Dreyfuss to shake off some bad film choices and some well-publicized drug scrapes.

Then, last year, he surfaced amongst the convivial ensemble of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. A few months ago, Tin Men saw him cruising at his former speed. Now Stakeout completes the rehabilitation process. All three films are from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.

Dreyfuss owns Stakeout. It’s ostensibly a cop-buddy movie, the plot of which puts Dreyfuss and partner Emilio Estevez on an extended stakeout. But it becomes clear early on that Estevez has drawn strictly sidekick duty here; this is really Dreyfuss’s showcase.

The two cops are ensconced in a dilapidated house across the street from the home of a woman (Madeleine Stowe) who is the ex­-girlfriend of a vicious escaped criminal (Aidan Quinn). The cops figure the con may visit the house, so they settle in for a long and boring stakeout.

Except that Dreyfuss finds himself unduly attracted to the object of the watch. He inadvertently makes contact, and is quickly interacting with her in ways that would make Jack Webb’s hair turn white. Estevez, of course, watches from across the street.

Jim Kouf’s script catches a lot of the humor of the situation, particularly the bantering among the cops on the tedious duty. Dreyfuss and Estevez bicker a lot about movie trivia (there’s an inside joke about Jaws, which starred Dreyfuss) and JFK’s assassination.

John Badham, whose direction can be good (War Games) or bad (Short Circuit) depending on the script, is nimble enough here. The lightness of tone almost short-circuits the movie, particularly during a farcical car chase when Dreyfuss has to exit Stowe’s house after spending the night with her, and the police mistake him for the escaped con.

Luckily, when the psychopathic escapee does show up (I’m not giving a surprise away, the film makes it inevitable) Badham gets the danger back into it. Some of this has to do with the sheer intensity of Aidan Quinn, who continues to look like one of the best actors in America.

For the most part, the movie’s loosey-goosey and wisecracking, which fits Dreyfuss perfectly. He rips through the film with all the confidence of the young bantam he was in Jaws and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Welcome back.

Oh yeah, the film is set in Seattle. You know this because one character wears a Seahawks cap, there’s a fight in a fish-processing plant, and a totem pole is being carved in front of the police station. (Please!) But the whole thing was shot in Vancouver, B.C., because the Canadian dollar is currently so agreeable. So try not to snicker when the Expo ’86 grounds flash by outside Richard Dreyfuss’s apartment—it’s all part of the illusion, folks.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

Couple of things here that have been generally forgotten: That Stakeout was a big hit movie, and that Dreyfuss had a bona fide comeback. You never hear this film mentioned today, but it was very successful (made the year’s top ten grossers) and generally liked. I see I was impressed with Aidan Quinn back then, and at this moment his promising career took a mystifying turn. Stowe should have been huge as well; this was her first significant thing in movies, and of course she had a nice run for a while. There was a sequel, but who remembers Another Stakeout?