New York city beat cop Sam Makin is ambushed one night and awakens to discover that he has had Magic Plastic Surgery to drastically change his looks. Oh, and he's Legally Dead, too, and is given the new identity Remo Williams, after the name and location of the manufacturer of the bedpan in his hospital room. Convinced to become an agent for the United States government, Williams is sent to train in the Fantastic Fighting Style of Sinanju from an Old Master named Chiun (Joel Grey), while the organization running him, CURE, investigates corruption in a US Army weapons procurement program.
This film contains examples of the following tropes:
- Charles Atlas Superpower: Sinanju. Chiun is a master of Sinanju, and by virtue of this ultimate martial art is able to dodge any attack, including bullets at any range, as well as run on water near the end of the film. Remo isn't at Chiun's level yet but he's still far deadlier than most.
- Climbing the Cliffs of Insanity: As a training exercise, Chiun once requires Remo to climb down the scaffolding from the renovation of the Statue of Liberty. He is then attacked by assassins in the middle of it and has to fight them off as he descends.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: The Big Bad of the film is a defense contracting executive conspiring with a general to cover up that the assault rifles he's building for the Army are prone to bursting when fired.
- Damsel in Distress: Major Rayner Fleming is a competent administrative officer and is the first to realize the problems posed by the faulty assault rifles, but this being 1985 she is not combat trained and has to be rescued by Remo.
- Disability Superpower: Conn cuts an electrified fence with a pair of wire cutters without flinching. When Remo asks him if Chiun taught him that, Conn reveals his prosthetic arm, replacing a flesh-and-blood limb lost in Korea.
- Dodge the Bullet: Chiun demonstrates this to Remo at their introduction and later teaches it to him, complete with comments about which muscles to watch for twitching and why you shouldn't cheat by remembering how many bullets are meant to be in the gun.
- Dream-Crushing Handicap: Conversed. Chiun follows a soap opera where the high school football player loses one of his legs:Boy: But, I was going to be All-American!
Doctor: Well, now you can be All-American for courage!
- Excuse Me While I Multitask: Remo's first assassination target is Master Chiun himself, who just goes about his daily routines as Remo repeatedly tries to kill him, the goal being to show Remo how little he really knows.
- Fantastic Fighting Style: Sinanju is reputedly the originator of all martial arts.
- Klingons Love Shakespeare: Chiun despises literally everything about American culture... except soap operas, which he describes as the only worthwhile thing America has ever produced.
- Line-of-Sight Name: Sam Makin's new name Remo Williams comes from the name and location of the manufacturer of the bedpan in his hospital room after he's recovering from plastic surgery.
- Monumental Battle: A big fight sequence when Remo is attacked by assassins while climbing down from the renovation work on the Statue of Liberty.
- Nonchalant Dodge:
- Our introduction to the title character's future master comes when Remo shoots at him. The man does a Type 1, later explained as him watching Remo's muscle movements to tell when he was about to fire.
- Remo later does the same trick, but it doesn't look nearly as badass as when Chiun does it.
- Novelization: By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, the authors of the movie's source novels.
- Oddly Small Organization: A former cop is forcibly recruited by a secret government organization called the CURE, founded by President Kennedy to safeguard the country from all threats by any means necessary. The entire organization consists of only three people (including the new recruit) and a powerful computer (for its time). There is also an Old Master who trains Remo, but he's not officially a member.
- Old Master: An unusual example in Chiun, an old Korean mentor capable of assorted miraculous feats but also a blatant racist and sexist. He is from a different generation. Incidentally, his racism consists entirely of Korean chauvinism, which makes him a neat parody of the kinds of racists Western audiences are more likely to encounter.
- The Pornomancer: Chiun can reduce a woman to an orgasmic heap by tapping on her wrist in time with her pulse. (Remo attempts this but can't pull it off.)
- Silence, You Fool!Chiun: Silence! The fool chatters, but it is the wise man that listens.
- The Spook: The bad guys refer to Remo as "The Faceless Wonder" because they can find absolutely no information on him at all other than a picture and the fact that he's interfering with their nefarious scheme (an artifact of his new identity).
- Super-Persistent Predator: That one guard dog that Remo could not lose no matter what he tried, such as following him across a cable between two buildings.
- Try and Follow: At one point Remo is being chased by a relentless trio of doberman pinschers. He climbs to the roof of a building to escape, but they follow somehow, at which point he runs across a cable connecting the building he's on to another building. He even lampshades the situation by uttering a sarcastic, "Try and follow me now, you bastards!" Two of the dogs leave the roof to find other avenues of approach. But the third dog follows him across the cable.
- Unflinching Walk: Remo after killing a corrupt general and defense contractor by blowing up their jeep. Here's a clip.
- Walk on Water: Remo's mentor Chiun doing this to escape some villains and to show Remo he's still got a lot to learn. (The trick, it seems, is to run really fast.) Remo himself earlier runs across wet cement, while the Mook following him falls in and drowns. This is shown as being a kind of mind-over-matter trick of becoming lighter, not really faster.
- Yellowface: Chiun is played by Caucasian Joel Grey in yellowface. Notably, the sheer amount of effort put into this earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup, although it lost the award to Mask.