Warriors of Virtue
“Virtue be yours!”
There are several reasons I wanted to do a Ronny Yu retrospective, and coming in at around #3 (but maybe it should be higher) is the existence of this, his first American production, which is (to date) his only movie about kung fu kangaroos. WARRIORS OF VIRTUE is a crazy fuckin PG-rated family action adventure fantasy that mixes some of the elegant imagery and mythology of Yu’s previous work with a bizarre mix of NEVERENDING STORY and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. It could be argued to be Yu’s worst movie, or his most unusual one. It’s totally derivative, yet there’s absolutely nothing like it. It’s hard to imagine it happening in any year besides 1997, and also it’s hard to imagine it happening in 1997. But it happened. I was there.
I mean I wasn’t in the magical world of Tao where it takes place, or on the soundstage in Beijing where it was filmed, but as a BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR devotee at the time I did pay to see WARRIORS in the theater, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.
It’s the story of ordinary American kid Ryan Jeffers (Mario Yedidia, JACK), and it’s one of those depictions of youth that seems like it was concocted by a 150 year old who lives in a containment unit on Mars but has read some old magazine articles and thinks he has a pretty good idea what life must be like for the kids these days. To this guy it makes sense to open the movie with a dog dropping toast through a window to Ryan as he excitedly reads a stack of comic books in the bathroom.
Ryan is short and has to wear a leg brace, but he’s some kind of tactical football genius. He and his best friend Chucky (Ricky D’Shon Collins, also in JACK) work as water boys for the school’s team, and Ryan suggests the play that quarterback Brad (Michael Dubrow, “Student #1,” CASPER) uses to win the big game. Brad looks much older than Ryan, but rides around on a bike with his co-ed gang of jerks, and he invites Ryan to hang out in a transparently bullying fashion that Ryan takes as an invite to the cool crowd.
They break into some tunnel where Brad and his friends (except for conscientious objector Tracey [Julie Patzwald, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, AIR BUD 3]) pressure Ryan into an “initiation” that requires walking across a pipe over some kind of powerful whirlpool – a feat he clearly is not physically capable of doing. It seems that they’re straight up trying to murder this kid for the crime of helping them win the game. Then when the inevitable happens and he falls into the water Brad in particular looks surprised and horrified. What did he think was gonna happen?
But before I get to the whirlpool carrying Ryan to the mystical realm of Tao, I want to mention that his other best friend besides Chucky is an adult, Ming (Dennis Dun, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), who does spectacular spinning-and-throwing-things-around performative cooking like the characters in Yu’s SHOGUN & LITTLE KITCHEN. And when another cook trips and throws a bunch of plates in the air Ming is able to safely catch the cook (on his foot) and all of the food.
For some reason Ryan is allowed to hang around and talk to Ming in the crowded kitchen of the Chinese restaurant where he works. He’s some kind of idol and mentor to Ryan, and they even share a special handshake, like in all great adult-child friendships.
Concerned about the kid, Ming gives him two unusual gifts: a jar holding a fist-sized cocoon that he found years ago (this has symbolic but not narrative purpose, and is honestly a weird thing to give to someone), and an ancient manuscript that he says taught him how to be himself. Ryan likes the cocoon but is totally unimpressed by the manuscript, even kind of complains about it. But the cocoon becomes nothing and the manuscript becomes the magical McMuffin that everybody’s fighting over in Tao.
Which is where Ryan wakes up after the, uh… sewage accident or whatever. He finds himself in a stylized forest where he marvels that his clothes are already dry. And I wish I could say it’s a forest populated by kangaroo people, but this is one of those fantasy worlds where the unusual creatures are vastly outnumbered by normal humans in armor or vaguely medieval robes and gowns who are all excited about him being a “Newcomer.”
To be fair, the village does have one rhinoceros man named Mosley and one guy named “Willy Beest” (makeup artists Jason Hamer and Roy Ceballos), and a Moreau-esque monkey boy in one shot (maybe that’s Chila, played by Peter Abrahamson?)
When he sees his first kangaroo man Ryan runs in terror, then realizes his leg is healed, and immediately forgets he was running in terror to say “YES!” and dance around and do fake kung fu and football plays. (This scene gave James Cameron the idea for the scene in AVATAR and made that movie a box office hit [error 404 citation does not exist]. Soon he meets Elysia (Marley Shelton, GRINDHOUSE), who explains that Tao was a peaceful place until Komodo (Angus Macfadyen, BRAVEHEART) started mining “the Lifespring” for “zubrium” that he drinks to keep himself young and there’s an old man called Master Chung (Chao-Li Chi, “Uncle Chu” from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, BLOOD WORK) who trained five “Warriors of Virtue” who are “Rooz.”
Master Chung explains that “each upholds honor and integrity” and that each represent one of the five elements as well as one of the five Chinese virtues (“Chi, virtue of high wisdom, power of fire. Often playful, but very wise.”) The coolest is Yee, because he doesn’t talk (“he saw so much suffering”) and has a metal ring that he throws around, like Xena. The most mysterious is Yun, because he was their leader but has gone into exile because he accidentally killed someone in battle.
“So what? It was a battle. People die,” Ryan says flippantly.
“It was a life!” yells Elysia. It’s not revealed until later that it was her brother, and that she’s addicted to zubrium, which Komodo gives her to make her evil and vengeful and also wear sexier clothes and makeup and act totally different.
Macfadyen (who shares Yu’s international upbringing, having lived in Scotland, Africa, France, the Philippines and Singapore) plays a character with shiny robes and a habit of laying around in fancy beds, much like THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR‘s villains.
“I tried to go over the top with this character,” Macfadyen says, stating the obvious, in an article in The Oklahoman with the headline “Actor Enjoyed Creating Fantasy Villain Role.” Though I would definitely qualify it as mega-acting, I found his style pretty annoying, going between different accents or yelling or singing certain lines or words with no apparent rhyme or reason other than the vague feeling that it’s supposed to be funny. I do like the part where he makes his second in command come in close to nervously ask him, “Does purple suit me?”
But I don’t know how he knows how to say “Warr-i-ors, come out and pla-ay!” Was THE WARRIORS released on manuscript?
There is one kind of funny joke in the movie when Komodo is forcing Ryan to read the manuscript to him (supposedly he’s the only one that can read it). Ryan tells him it says “shit happens,” and for a second Komodo and Elysia believe him and quizzically repeat the phrase a few times, trying to parse its wisdom.
Unfortunately Komodo’s henchmen aren’t great. Tom Towles (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, FORTRESS, NORMAL LIFE, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, MIAMI VICE) does his best to not be silly as General Grillo, but beneath him are two guys (Lee Arenberg and Stuart Kingston) who act in roughly the same style as the “comedy” duo Bulk & Skull from MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS. There is a cool spider-themed henchwoman named Barbarotious (Qu Ying, TWINS EFFECT II; voiced by Venus Terzo, SKYSCRAPER), who I wish was in it more.
Anyway it’s okay, because Komodo multiplies into five during the climax so all of the Warriors get to duel him at the same time. Just like in football, Ryan figures out the winning play and tells it to the Rooz. But for some reason they don’t reward him by taunting him and forcing him to fall into a whirlpool. Instead he gets to go back home and it ends with him hugging his dog and asking “You wanna hear about Tao?” Jesus, this kid must’ve been insufferable for the rest of his life.
Oh, and we don’t see Ming again.
All of this is told in a clunky and haphazard fashion. An example of the weak storytelling: Master Chung asks Ryan for the manuscript so it doesn’t fall in Komodo’s hands. Ryan asks to see the Warriors of Virtue, changing the subject and not mentioning that he doesn’t have the manuscript. When he does tell them that later, they surmise since he was rescued from water that it was Yun who rescued him and therefore Yun has the manuscript. But when Ryan finds Yun and he doesn’t know anything about the manuscript, Ryan says “Komodo must have it” and then they treat that as fact.
“Tell them about the manuscript!”
“Komodo has it.”
They turn out to be right, but they’re basing this on nothing. There’s no consideration that it got lost in the water, it didn’t make it through the portal with him, or that literally any person or animal besides Komodo has it.
Another example: Ryan finds the secluded Yun and tells him he needs to come back and help the Warriors. Yun doesn’t say yes, so Ryan whines, but Yun does come with him, so he says “Cool!” When they get back to the other Warriors, Yun says “I was wrong. The Newcomer helped me realize that.” As if he had some really compelling argument. They barely even talked. It feels like they never really figured out the connective tissue between the story beats in the treatment.
Despite all this, I find the movie fascinating. There are two main things I like about it:
1) I mean, obviously it’s fuckin crazy. It’s about wise mystical kung fu kangaroos and shit.
2) It is shamelessly dedicated to philosophical ideas that come across as unorthodox in this type of story. Even as a PG-rated movie it’s unusual for non-violence to be so explicit that one of the characters has gone into voluntary exile out of shame for having accidentally killed a “bad guy.” More interestingly, it’s a movie that doesn’t exactly believe in bad guys and good guys, with the constant hope for a change of heart to convert one side to the other. Elysia turns evil but then fights Komodo to protect Ryan. Barbarotious attacks Elysia for turning on her master, but her master turns on her for attacking Elysia. And at the end a seemingly sane and nice Komodo shows up not remembering who he is, and is welcomed into town.
Yun reveals that the Rooz knew General Grillo when they were all kids, and even though they “played on opposite sides,” whatever that means, they “were still friends.” This appeal to nostalgia doesn’t convince Grillo to help them, but he does appear to feel guilty about it.
On the other hand in the real world part Chucky says Brad is “evil, man. Lucifer thinks he’s a little extreme,” and we never get a chance to learn otherwise. I guess we could count him being upset about Ryan’s apparent death. But that seems like a pretty low bar to set for him.
As he’d done with some of THE BRIDE WITH THE WHITE HAIR, Yu shot most of the action scenes at 11 frames per second, doubling the frames to play at almost normal speed, a process called step printing. I wish he didn’t use it so much – it really detracts from the clarity and the rhythms of martial arts movements. And that’s a shame in a movie that, like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, is mostly impressive in that they have dudes wearing complex animatronic suits jumping around kicking and spinning wooden staffs and stuff. It’s an American movie using wire-fu two years before THE MATRIX, and they’re kangaroos.
I assume there are martial artists doing the fight scenes, but the suit performers credited for playing the Warriors include Jack Tate (Dinosaurs, THEODORE REX) as Yun, Don Lewis (the magician from BREAKIN’ 2) as Lai, J. Todd Adams (SKY KIDS) as Chi and Adrienne Corcoran (one episode of 7th Heaven) as Tsun. Doug Jones, who has since become famous for his monster-suit performances with Guillermo Del Toro (including Abe Sapien in the HELLBOYs, the faun and the Pale Man in PAN’S LABYRINTH, and Sexiest Fishman Alive in THE SHAPE OF WATER), plays Yee. They’re performing under sixty-pound muscle suits and fiberglass helmets covered in motors and wires all connected to a backpack.
The actors are, of course, working in collaboration with Tony Gardner and his team of animatronics engineers. In some scenes, more than 25 additional people had to be on set to control the movements, including three puppeteers for each character. The lip sync, though crude in spots, was groundbreaking in that the mouths change shape to mimic real pronunciations, they don’t just flap up and down like muppets.
An impressive thing I noticed is that sometimes you can see their breath in the cold. I assume it’s the real breath of the actors inside. If it was an effect that’s incredible attention to detail.
It was filmed mostly in Beijing, and some scenes in Vancouver, with an Australian, American and Chinese crew. Yu said in the press notes that he gave instructions in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, but sometimes got mixed up and resorted to hand signals.
Yu brought along his brilliant BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR d.p. Peter Pau (also a co-producer) and editor/sequel-director David Wu, and his PHANTOM LOVER color timer Hideo Yamaoka. There are plenty of shots, like the opening scene of Master Chung holding a ring of beads that then spill onto the ground (symbolism in my opinion), that honestly look like they could’ve been lifted from one of his Chinese movies and spliced into this. Other Hong Kong vets in the crew include costume designer Shirley Chan (POLICE STORY 2, THE KILLER, FIST OF LEGEND) and action choreographer Siu Ming Tsui (TWIN DRAGONS, TWINS MISSION). They worked with production designer Eugenio Zanetti, who had just won an Oscar for RESTORATION, and supervising art director Joseph P. Lucky (TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY).
But despite all that credibility he brought to the production, this was not Yu’s baby. WARRIORS OF VIRTUE was dreamed up by a fledgling company called Law Brothers Entertainment International. They are literally four brothers, sons of a Hong Kong industrialist who owned the biggest toy factory in China. His company Smile Industries reportedly had something to do with the manufacturing of Cabbage Patch Kids and Star Wars toys. The brothers individually immigrated to the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s to study at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia. From there they all moved to Denver, Colorado, where they made their careers as different types of physicians (Dennis – vascular and thoracic surgery, Ronald – cardiology, Christopher – plastic surgery, Jeremy – orthopedic surgery), and were still practicing during the movie’s production.
Screenwriter Michael Vickerman did uncredited rewrites on CLIFFHANGER at the age of 20 while working as a P.A. for Stallone’s production company. He was fresh out of film school when Law Brothers hired him to write the screenplay and children’s books series for what a later Vickerman bio describes as “their toy creation ‘Kung Fu Kangaroos.'” (It was also simply called ROOZ at one point, according to a 1995 Variety listing I found.)
I would’ve liked to have read the tie-in novels as part of my research, but getting used copies of all five would cost me around $125, not including shipping. As of this writing #2, Lai and the Headhunters, is the most expensive at $65.14. (Someone’s trying to sell one in “acceptable” condition for $166.07!)
Vickerman went on to write many TV movies and mini-series (INTIMATE STRANGER, THE DEADLY PLEDGE, HOLIDAZE starring Jennie Garth, TUT) and one DTV witch movie (THE WICKED). In 2002 he directed the little known, Roo-less sequel WARRIORS OF VIRTUE 2: RETURN TO TAO. Even having been interested in WARRIORS OF VIRTUE for decades I had no idea there was a sequel until recent years. I was able to find it on a cheapo Miramax “Family Fantasy-Adventure” six-movie collection so yes, I will be reviewing it.
With an insane movie like this there’s always a chance that some wiseass will ask “how did this get made?,” and fortunately the Denver independent newspaper Westword had some insights into that in an excellent piece called “Everybody Wasn’t Kung Fu Fighting” a few years after the movie came out. According to the article, the Law Brothers “put up most of the reported $36 million shooting budget themselves,” not for lack of financier interest, but to maintain “control over their idea.” Like George Lucas, I guess.
They chose kangaroos for their ability to punch, and because they thought they looked cool. Chris (the plastic surgeon) created the bible of Tao mythology. Though their dad’s “South China factory turned out more than a million Warriors toys for distribution worldwide”…
…they insist that it wasn’t just about selling toys or making money. Which is good, since they didn’t do much of either. Says their dad, “I’m excited to finance the whole project with the children. I thought the whole movie laid out a lot of meaning. I never expected to be rich on it.” (This makes him very different from the rich factory owners who were enemies of art in Yu’s previous movie, THE PHANTOM LOVER.)
Apparently the brothers have enough money from “a Christmas-products business and real-estate holdings around Denver” that they didn’t sweat the financial loss. “We didn’t go into it for that,” says Dennis. “We had a passion for something.” They definitely didn’t go broke from the movie, as in 2013 they were able to donate $3 million to their alma mater to build a facility named after their parents.
(Note: In my Google searching I also learned that the Law Brothers were listed in the Panama Papers as having offshore accounts.)
If it didn’t hurt them financially, though, they were still disappointed. Dennis (the vascular and thoracic surgeon) sounds offended that it lost the opening weekend to AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY. “That movie was dog meat. It’s a dumb guy and girls with boobs half-showing.” He later says, “If I made SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, my parents wouldn’t want to come into public.” But he also accuses critics of being “left wing liberals” who (paraphrased by the writer) “thought the film was too scary and violent for youngsters.”
I don’t know. I can’t blame critics for not seeing what was special under all this. Even if you’re like me and can respect the shameless earnestness of the marsupial wisdom, you have to get past the whole ludicrous opening in our world, and see this dorky kid with his hoodie and backpack tainting whatever purity the fantasy world might’ve had.
But remember that one theory about the auteurs? Even in this strange toy-company-surgeon-brothers-work-for-hire gig I see many connections to Yu’s other work. I mentioned the performative cooking, and I suspect Ryan’s leg brace and friendship with a cook are actually very personal to Yu, who grew up having trouble walking due to polio, and while he was in boarding school in England learned some moves from a cook, according to a 2006 interview with Martial Arts Entertainment.
“On the weekend, we go out and hang at the Chinese restaurant and we befriended one of the staff that cooked behind the kitchen. We all got free meals. And this guy was actually a wing chun guy, practicing for like 30-40 years, you know? He saw me. He saw my condition. And he said, ‘Hey, you know what? You can learn martial arts. Do like this.’ Come on. How can I even stand straight? He said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, I’m going to teach you wing chun because wing chun is all about the hands. You need something to defend yourself.'”
In the interview he never brings up WARRIORS OF VIRTUE, but when he describes escaping by watching martial arts movies, it kind of sounds like escaping into the world of Tao:
“I love martial arts movies because it’s something for me to escape in. I’ll never forget it – I’ll never get to that world, but I can imagine. I can put myself in there. That’s why I love watching all those different styles of martial arts like wing chun and blah blah blah. It helped me. I can go to that world as my world.”
Yu’s cross-cultural sharing themes come up in the pre-Tao sequence, with Ryan’s interest in Ming’s stories of kung fu. At the end we see he has a poster of Bruce Lee – the father of Yu’s LEGACY OF RAGE star. And in Tao, if you think about it, Ryan is an immigrant. The people of Tao treat the things he brought from home, like his watch, as exotic imports, much like the imported chocolate in THE POSTMAN STRIKES BACK and THE PHANTOM LOVER. (They even try to eat them.)
Of course, Yu’s most distinct contribution is visual. Ryan’s world could exist in any crappy movie, but as soon as we arrive in Tao my man Peter Pau and his cameras are all over the yellow sun beams, reflections on water, blowing leaves and sparks, dangling vines, lanterns and fireflies. I want to end this review with some screengrabs just to show you how beautiful some of the images look out of context.
And those aren’t even in the correct aspect ratio. I don’t suppose anybody wants to do a Blu-Ray?
In conclusion, I would argue that WARRIORS OF VIRTUE is in the top two humanoid kangaroo movies of the ’90s, and also that all super rich people who aren’t feeding the hungry should at least spend tens of millions on crazy movies with flying, fighting, wise animatronic animal characters. You may disagree. But I am right. Stick that in your pouch.
Tomorrow: I’m going to take another tangent to review a much more acclaimed children’s fantasy that was clearly one of the inspirations for WARRIORS OF VIRTUE.