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.

If a judge on the take gives low sentences to major drug offenders, Remo hangs him from a thirteenth-story window until he agrees to change his ways. If Remo catches wind of a terrorist plot hatching in the badlands of Iran, he zips overseas and decapitates one of the culprits with his hands. He's like Rambo on a broader scale: as he does his vigilante work, he's in the U.S. government but not of it. His organization is obsessive about its secrecy to the point that Remo spends almost as much of his time knocking off people who stumble onto CURE'S membership list as he does assassinating those who commit overt crimes against the flag. Terrorists, students, and other cartoon images of the left are frequent enemies, but there's no strict political pattern to Remo's victims. Rather the authors assemble their villains on an ad hoc basis.

Murphy and Sapir admit that the series wasn't going well until they started to focus on the legends of Sinanju in the third Remo novel ( Chinese Puzzle ). It seems clear why. Like the Buddha-cum-Christ symbolism in Rambo , Sinaju serves to sanctify the hero's killings. It also provides contrast for the authors' virulent but democratic broadsides against every race, color, and creed, every sexual persuasion, and every socio-economic class. Every foreign country is sniped at, but so is every aspect of America except, in post-1980 installments, Ronald Reagan. Even sex, one of the mainstays of pulp adventure, comes in for rough handling. Chiun ruins lovemaking for Remo by teaching him an advanced vocabulary of erotic zones that reduces the reaching of orgasm to a purely mechanical activity. It's the rare woman who wins Remo's hardboiled affection by proving herself valiant and pure of heart—and she usually gets killed. The flashes of romance function only as additions to Remo's legendary aura: a terrorist student in Terror Squad gets a fleeting moment of redemption when she tosses a Kleenex during a fight to serve as Remo's knightly pennant. A minute later she gets her brain bashed. In short, nothing is sacred except Sinanju—and nothing except Sinanju survives.

Chiun's ancient viewpoint lends a timeless backdrop to the everyday challenges of organized criminals and revolutionaries. For example, when cult murders on airlines threaten to cripple American air travel, Chiun expounds on the importance of an open transportation system to any powerful society and recalls the Sinanju assassin who failed to maintain the safety of the ancient Romans' roads and thus save the Empire. Inspired by this font of strength, courage, and wisdom, even the patriotic, selfless Remo sees himself becoming more Sinanju and less American. And the more Sinanju-like he grows when performing an activity like breathing, the less he must indulge in Western pastimes, such as linear thought. In these books it's not America that saves itself—not the vigorous legacy of JFK and not even the grit and determination of Remo, a Vietnam vet and former street cop. Instead, what saves America is a way of life that evolved in a rocky North Korean village where the patriarchs fed their women and children by hiring themselves out to the era's reigning emperors.

In Rambo the hero disdains advanced weaponry, mumbling that the best weapon is the mind; in Code of Silence the policeman-hero mocks the use of a computerized policing machine until he finds himself with no other ally. In Remo: The Adventure Begins the Sinanju warrior takes on the military-industrial complex in miniature, when he investigates a defense manufacturer who's selling flawed and phony goods to the armed forces. Judging from a twenty-five-minute promotional reel designed to intrigue movie exhibitors by giving a taste of the action and the story line, the men who've shaped the first Destroyer film ("America's favorite tough guy comes to the screen in a movie that's big enough to hold him!") have scraped away a lot of Murphy and Sapir's misanthropy and built up Remo's Rambo-like status as (to quote the press notes) "a new kind of American hero for the '80s who is just your average guy with just a little bit something more that gives him a mystique all his own." They've also put the most benign slant possible on the politics of CURE (which in the promotional reel isn't even mentioned by name). Remo's agency boss describes his special targets as those corrupt people who "roam the halls of power with impunity." The only pernicious foreign elements to be seen are a trio of vicious Doberman pinschers. The tone is much more genial, humorous, and light than that of most other apocalyptic adventure flicks.

You can't fully appreciate the function of sidekicks in action fiction until you compare Remo and Chiun with Rambo and Rambo. The way Fred Ward plays Remo, he has a wry awareness of the improbability of his own powers. And under a ton of pale yellow makeup Joel Grey plays Chiun as both a cryptic, aloof sage and a harsh but protective parent—an Oriental father and a Jewish mother rolled into one. His way of preening is to say that Remo is coming along in his training and should amount to something soon—perhaps in fifteen years. The movie gives us a taste of his condescension to white folks (which in the book protects Murphy and Sapir from charges of pro-white racism), as when he tells a black American that Remo smells like hamburgers. The relationship of Remo and Chiun allows them to escape the usual superhero isolationism. As Barbra Streisand, Chiun's heroine, put it, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.

You can get carried along by the exuberance and likability of Remo: The Adventure Begins , only to have the despair of the pop mythology underneath it catch up with you the morning after. In the mythology that Remo shares with the dour, inexpressive Chuck Norris and the glowering, narcissistic Sylvester Stallone, heroes use their powers to defend a society that doesn't deserve them. Rambo and Remo are supposed to be average guys who've gotten in shape, but they're not just our representatives in the action, taking our side in the do-or-die power games that decide the fate of the earth. They're the ruthless guardians of Western civilization—our final sentinels of justice. These movies seem to be saying, After Rambo and Remo the deluge.