Movies October 1985

Heroes We Don't Deserve


This is not James Bond's year. A View to a Kill was the worst Bond movie ever, and not even the former-disco queen Grace Jones could make it last at the box office. The movie gave off an end-of-the-line feeling. A generation of schoolboys grew up repeating brazen, cold Bond wisecracks such as the famous "Shocking, positively shocking," delivered in Goldfinger after Bond electrocuted an enemy. The later Bond seems dated and out of it: when his Kill playmate dresses in a male miner's uniform, he twinkles and quips, "Women's Lib." In recent months the movie that was winning the cheers and applause that Bond films used to get centered on a witless vulgarian named Rambo. And the character who's being touted as the next James Bond is yet another taciturn American who never wears a dinner jacket, can't pronounce champagne much less drink it, and does all his killing with his hands. He carries a name remarkably similar to that of America's favorite rampaging vet: he's called Remo Williams.

Remo, the hero of more than sixty action-adventure paperbacks that have sold over 25 million copies, comes to the screen October 11 in Remo: The Adventure Begins , one of the most elaborately promoted movies in the history of Orion Pictures. The distributors hope to turn Remo into the latest secret-agent craze.

Bond to Rambo to Remo: it's a natural progression. Bond was the first coldblooded killer to be hailed as a savior of the Western world and even touted by a President. (Kennedy was as big a Bond fan as Reagan is a Rambo man.) In the books he sometimes voiced qualms about being a professional executioner; in the movies he took the edge off his killings by uttering witticisms in what Penelope Gilliatt has called "a voice of the age, the voice of sick jokes about the bomb, and gruesomes about Belsen." But Bond's cachet has come increasingly under fire. The glamorous fantasy world of Ian Fleming's international espionage has dulled in the light of attacks on real-world heartlessness and ineptitude (including attacks in fiction by John LeCarré and Len Deighton). The mechanical hijinks of the Bond series backfired as the gadgetry began to control 007 and as audiences everywhere witnessed the terrors of runaway technology in their own lives. Bond's superhuman status reached the point of inhumanity when Roger Moore took over from Sean Connery. Even his hedonism has come to seem either mundane or scurrilous in these polarized times, when half the moviegoers are probably as casual as Bond is about sex, and the other half are terrified. The anything goes recklessness of the Bond series fit an age of affluence and exploding possibilities; it can't appeal as strongly to audiences who feel jaded or embattled.

Rambo, Remo, and the characters that Chuck Norris plays in movies like Missing in Action and Code of Silence all perform superman heroics too, but they're sketched as ordinary men who through training and discipline have developed extraordinary powers. These heroes don't have the guilty conscience of Fleming's Bond, the wit of Connery's, or the high style of either. They're simply killing machines on the side of right—Spartans in defense of Athens. Both the book Goldfinger and the movie featured a tense, bloodless face-off between Bond and the title villain during a round of golf. When Remo Williams hits the links (in Death Therapy , number six of the series), he tears apart a commando squad that tries to trap him on the green.

James Bond's politics rarely roused any controversy: though Bond was on the face of things a conventional Cold Warrior, the films' producers made an effort to do without politics entirely. In contrast, the new he-man movies are being sold as patriotic statements: Uncle Rambo Wants You. But the politics behind Sylvester Stallone's Rambo, the Chuck Norris heroes, and even Remo Williams, who in the comparatively lighthearted Remo: The Adventure Begins fights atop the scaffold-encased Statue of Liberty, are the politics not of conservatism but of desperation. Rambo may assault the Vietnamese and the Russians, but it's the U.S. government man who backstabs him, and it's this gutless bureaucrat Rambo really goes after, blowing apart his bank of computers in a gesture worthy of the Luddites. Rambo, like Norris in MIA , starts out as a soldier following orders, only to ignore them when they hog-tie him. Remo is a one-man army right from the beginning, fighting all the powers of evil that our armed forces and intelligence agencies seem unable to contain. These movies are telling us not that our country is great but that it doesn't work. Heroes like Rambo and Remo are presented as our only hope—as ludicrous fantasy barriers against chaos and confusion.

The new pop action heroes fight their way out of quagmires created by mixing high technology (including the manipulatable media) with low bureaucracy (whether in the military, the police, or Congress). In that way they're not very different from the more upscale heroes of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai or the more realistic heroes of The Right Stuff . And in most of these movies the heroes seek some otherworldly validation that will help them translate their stoic anxieties into sweeping action. In Rambo that theme is implicit in images of Buddha and crucifixion, in the hero's Zen-like prowess with knife and bow-and-arrow, and in the mystic aura that surrounds the scenes in which Rambo uses his dead female helper's hem as a headband, puts her pendant around his neck, and builds her a burial mound worthy of the mighty Thor. In TV's Rambo knock-off, Code of Vengeance , and especially in the Remo Williams paperbacks, that theme is explicit.

Remo Williams jumps further than anyone else into Western political confusion and Eastern religion—the politics of desperation and the religion of transcendence. His paperback series is called The Destroyer, because Remo is supposed to be the latest incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction (though Remo gives the latter function short shrift). Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir wrote the first Remo book in 1963, and Pinnacle published it eight years later. Last year the authors and the series moved over to Signet, where the packaging is classier and the books more padded—even the titles tend to be four or five words whereas they used to be two or three. But Pinnacle has kept its fifty-eight books in print (that's quite an array of trash) and has even started an "Author's Choice: Best of The Destroyer" series, in which Murphy and Sapir have added pulp versions of Jamesian introductions. Evidently, they believe that the key to the series' success isn't so much the hero himself as his mentor, Chiun. At first glance Chiun seems to be a senile Korean octogenarian; he spends his days watching soap operas and daydreaming about Barbra Streisand. But he's actually the reigning Master of Sinanju, the martial art/religion/discipline that he contends is the source for all lesser martial arts, including karate. It's Chiun who teaches Remo how to use his hands as monkey wrenches and knives, as battle axes and scalpels.

Remo Williams's license to kill is even more absolute than that of James Bond—and so is his brutality. He works not for the Secret Service, the CIA, or the FBI but for a secret intelligence arm called CURE. Indeed, for confidentiality's sake, Remo and Chiun are CURE's only enforcers. There are other members, who know that they're doing secret work but not whom its for. According to the paperbacks, President Kennedy (or, that is, a thinly disguised version of him) formed CURE shortly before his assassination. His goal was to protect the Constitution with a security force so secret and autonomous that it didn't have to operate within constitutional limits. Remo and Chiun's tactics are a bit like those of the American military during Vietnam: they've got to destroy something in order to save it. The Constitution may be a fine document in theory, but the chaos of modern society has enfeebled it. So Remo is empowered to administer justice as swiftly and directly as possible, without regard for due process.

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