The history of ‘yellowface’ in cinema - a practice in which white actors would tint their skin with makeup and tape back their eyelids to appear ‘Oriental’ - dates back to the Silent Era. Richard Barthelmess had famously lent a gentle dignity to the character of Cheng Huan in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) - even in the face of such tasty bons mots as “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?”

Several of the major stars of the Studio Era had at one time or other ‘yellowed-up’ for the Silver Screen, including Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Edward G. Robinson and even the Duke (improbably enough, as Genghis Khan). The practice reached its ‘nadir’, as it were, in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) with Mickey Rooney’s blustery, buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi - a performance so mind-bendingly offensive it still draws protest from the Asian-American community whenever the film is screened.

One would think by 1985, liberal Hollywood would have ceased this antiquated practice, which makes the casting of Joel Grey as Korean ‘Master of Sinanju’ Chiun in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, the more puzzling. Then again, this was the decade of Long Duk Dong.

Remo Williams began life in 1971 as the hero of The Destroyer novels. The series - written by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir - was the sort of hawkish, Right-leaning literature one might imagine John Milius reading whilst sinking his toes in some far-off Polynesian beach.

In late 1984, British director 62 year-old British director Guy Hamilton was hired to bring Remo to the Silver Screen. Hamilton was no stranger to the Action genre, having directed some of the better James Bond offerings of the ’60s and ’70s, including Goldfinger and The Man With Golden Gun. Another Bond vet, screenwriter Christopher Wood, was brought on board to pen the screenplay (after Murphy and Sapir’s draft was soundly rejected by the MGM suits). Consequently the movie has the sort of light touch and Byzantine plotting of a Bond, rather than Destroyer adventure.

Long story short: Fred Ward plays an NYPD cop, who, following a bizarro assault awakens in a hospital with a new face (well, they’ve shaved his mustache) and a new identity: Remo Williams, the latest recruit for CURE, an top-secret organization “dedicated to preserving the constitution by working outside of it.” Under the tutelage of a kooky Korean martial arts master, he must take down millionaire corporate turncoat, George Grove (Charles Cioffi).

The film is littered with memorable set pieces - particularly Remo’s fight atop the Statue of Liberty (itself a crib from Hitchcock’s Saboteur) - but it doesn’t quite gel as a whole. It has the feeling of an appetizer rather than complete meal. Chiun’s training sequence takes up approximately half of the film. The romance plot-line between Remo and Major Fleming (Kate Mulgrew) is left unresolved. Baddie George Grove seems like the warm-up to some supervillain of Blofeldian proportions. This was all probably due to the overly optimistic sequel innuendos of the title.

It’s easy to see how this movie got lost in the shuffle in the fall of 1985. This was an adrenaline-and-anabolic-fueled era where Rambo was slicing up Vietnamese like a Cuisinart. By comparison, Remo is positively tame. The effect of violence never extends beyond a blood-stained shirt or a superficially lacerated forehead. Granite-faced Ward is not an action hero for the Reagan decade - his modest physique seems underfed compared to the muscular megalomania of Sly and Arnie. Guy Hamilton’s deliberately-paced production lacks the frenzied, run ’n gun verve of First Blood Part II and its ilk. The end result feels as exhausted as Roger Moore looked in A View to a Kill.

Needless to say, plans for a sequel were nixed and Remo soon retreated back to the pulpy print from whence he came. For his part, Joel Grey would emerge from the detritus unscathed - receiving a Golden Globe nod for Best Supporting Actor. Three years later Chiun would be recast for a television pilot with none other than Roddy McDowall ... yellowface and all.


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