Movie Review -- Warriors of Virtue

It's hard to take yourself seriously when you review a children's movie like Warriors of Virtue (Ronny Yu, 1997). It's even harder when your criticism revolves around such portentous and at times contentious themes as cultural imperialism and genre hybridization. With Warriors of Virtue, the problem is compounded: even with with a Hong Kong director and a screenplay written by Hong Kong expatriates, it's still a great example of how diluting Hong Kong style martial arts film with Occidental fantasy narrative is a compromise that leaves nobody satisfied. That and it's just not a very good movie.

Ryan is some kid who is friends with Ming, a hot shot cook who does some pretty kick ass kung fu while frying up rice and noodles at the local Chinese restaurant. Ryan also has a gimped leg, a crush on a girl, and a desire to impress the quarterback of the football team. After telling the quarterback which play to use in order to win the big game, Ryan and his token black friend are invited to hang out with the cool kids, who apparently spend their time hanging out by a sewage treatment facility covered in graffiti. Grabbing some food from Ming before he goes to spray paint the walls around basically a giant commode, Ryan receives a manuscript of Chinese philosophy from his older friend. When he gets to the... whatever it's supposed to be, the quarterback dares him to walk across the pipe that goes over the giant basin as the deep water below him swirls, threatening to pull him under should he fall. Unsurprisingly, he falls, and ends up in the world of Tao. Of course, there's an evil warlord causing trouble in Tao -- the reptilianly named Komodo -- who is also looking for the manuscript, as it is the key to the spring of life. But there's also a set of heroes, the Warriors of Virtue, who protect Tao for the sake of Master Chung and some chick named Elysia.

Much like Rob Minkoff's The Forbidden Kingdom, Warriors of Virtue seems to take its cues from The Neverending Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984). The difference between the two is that The Forbidden Kingdom was far too lacking in ambition, especially given the way that international audiences have taken to the two stars; Warriors of Virtue has pretense beyond the humble genre it fits so well. One of the things that I strongly disliked about The Forbidden Kingdom is the intimation that the fantastical China-wonderland that the protagonist goes to is actually a China-wonderland, as opposed to metaphysical space created by his mind while unconscious. While that might not sound like a big deal, that single plot point makes China into the oriental magic-land where nerdy white kids learn how to stick up for themselves (it gets goofier still when the protagonist uses his new kung fu fightin' skills to beat the shit out of the improbably awful bullies). Warriors of Virtue avoids this pitfall by making the fantasy world purely a fantasy world, albeit with obvious influences of Asian -- specifically Chinese -- culture. Of course, the screenplay here is smart enough to keep what's going on in the fantasy world roughly within the realm of what might happen in an unimaginative thirteen year old's fantasy -- although I suppose that would make the screenplay less than smart, even if it is a good instinct on the screenwriter's part.

What's the point of the fantasy world though? Why can't this kid learn to stand up for himself and be confident without fortune cookie advice from a Chinese man? The story of a child going to a fantasy world of swords and magic to learn tools for living in the contemporary world has been filmed countless times, and written even more. The only film maker to have done anything interesting with it of late has been Tarsem Singh with The Fall, and even then, it's only because the fantasy sequences are so closely tied to the "real world" narrative that his film works. One wishes that the screen writers hadn't used this scenario again, as it adds nothing and doesn't really require that the characters do kung fu or spout pseudo-Taoism. I still have no idea what the "spring of life" is really for, why the warriors are divided by the elements, or why there are Kangaroo people. They're just there to be there.

And of course, we get the worst aspect of the movie: the one which killed it's chances at the box office. The "roos." Obviously short for "Kangaroo" (because kids can't be bothered to pronounce a three syllable word) the roos are the humanoid kangaroo kung fu fighting warriors of the land of Tao. There are five, each one standing for one of the five Taoist elements. These are worse than the predictable story, the nearly offensive tokenism, the evil little person, the bland over-acting of the villains, the fortune cookie wisdom and bastardized Tao Te Ching references. While all those are bad, the roos are just obnoxious. They immediately remind one of a certain group of anthropomorphic ninjas that were popular in the eighties, and when combined with the predictable story, nearly offensive tokenism etc. the whole thing just wreaks of trying too hard with too little talent. How exactly did they intend to write a primer in Taoism for American children that both made sense, and was fun, and commercial, and provided opportunities for kick-ass fight scenes? The idea alone is awful.

And if it weren't for the obnoxious furry-bait, the visuals might have helped to save the movie. Unlike The Forbidden Kingdom, which looked like the Hollywood idea of what a kung fu movie trying to be a Hollywood movie would look like, Warriors of Virtue kind of looks like the real deal, even if the story reads like a badly written deviation of the two disparate genres it combines. While both movies share Peter Pau as cinematographer, director Ronny Yu also brought with him David Wu (frequent collaborator) and fight choreographer Tsui Siu Ming (director and fight choreographer for the wild 1984 mainland Chinese film Holy Robe of Shaolin) along with stunt men and set decorators from Hong Kong. Reuniting three of the major forces behind the visuals for the impressively wacky The Bride with White Hair, it shouldn't be too surprising that Warriors of Virtue looks like a Hong Kong movie in a very good way, making use of many of the same tricks from their first collaboration (falling leaves, silhouette, weird lighting and color schemes, soft focus). With some impressive wushu performed by Tsui's stunt team in those awful kangaroo costumes and expensive set design by Oscar winning Eugenio Zanetti, this is really very nice looking fantasy film making.

I was pretty young when Warriors of Virtue made it into theaters, and was immediately turned off by the kangaroos. I eventually saw it much later on television, willing to sit through it because it was Ronny Yu's Hollywood debut, and I had to believe that it would be a better showcase of his talents than Bride of Chucky or Freddy vs. Jason. It is in some ways, but the movie itself is just not very good. If the writers had come up with something better than the token black kid ("let's make like Tom and Criuse!"), the giant toilet bowl, the generally nonsensical platitudes and mysticism, and (worst of all) kangaroo furries it might have been a decent generic fantasy film. As it is, it's a bad film with some incongruously interesting elements.

And as much as I've compared it to The Forbidden Kingdom, I have to say that both are far more interesting than DragonBall: Evolution, which didn't manage to do anything right. None the less, Warriors of Virtue is a noble failure. But oh God is it ever a failure.

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