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  Warriors of Virtue Kangaroos go kung fu!
Year: 1997
Director: Ronny Yu
Stars: Angus Macfadyen, Mario Yedidia, Marley Shelton, Doug Jones, Chao-Li Chi, Jack Tate, John W. Lewis, J. Todd Adams, Adrienne Corcoran, Michael J. Anderson, Tom Towles, Lee Arenberg, Dennis Dun, Ying Ou, Terry Rothery, Michael Dubrow
Genre: Martial Arts, Weirdo, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 2 votes)
Review: A Hong Kong/Australian co-production, this juvenile fantasy adventure hoped to kick-start a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) style franchise, only with kickboxing kangaroos! Needless to say, it didn’t take off, but the film contains enough idiosyncratic elements to make it worth watching. In a setup very similar to The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), martial arts-loving youngster Ryan (Mario Yedidia) struggles coping with his crippled leg and bullying football jock Brad (Michael Dubrow). His closest friend, kung fu chef Ming (Big Trouble in Little China’s (1986) Dennis Dun) tries to impart the philosophy behind martial arts and gives Ryan “the Manuscript of Tao” - the five elements of Chinese Mythology.

When Brad and his gang lead Ryan inside a water treatment plant and dare him to cross a rickety pipe, he trips and falls into the raging torrent. He awakens in the magical forest-kingdom of Tao and, after eluding a group of armoured warriors, befriends lovely martial arts maiden Elysia (Planet Terror (2007) starlet Marley Shelton). She brings Ryan to the sagely Master Chung (Chao-Li Chi), whose five kung fu kangaroos - Lai (Don W. Lewis/voiced by Dale Wilson), Chi (J. Todd Adams/voiced by Michael Dobson), Tsun (Adrienne Corcoran/voiced by Kathleen Barr), Yee (Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) star Doug Jones/voiced by Doug Parker) and Yun (Jack Tate/voiced by Scott McNeill) - embody each of the five elements of Tao: wood (order), fire (loyalty), earth (wisdom), metal (righteousness) and water (benevolence).

The “roos” are defending the forest against evil, philosophy-spouting warlord Komodo (Angus Macfadyen), who is draining its “Life Spring” to remain immortal, although Yun has taken to wandering the woods alone, after accidentally taking a human life. Soon, Komodo and his cohorts, Barbarities (Ying Ou) and General Grillo (Tom Towles, from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)) are after Ryan and his magical manuscript.

Despite the novelty of its kickboxing kangaroo heroes, this relatively obscure movie is known for two things. Firstly, as being a rather inauspicious, English-language debut for Hong Kong New Wave auteur Ronny Yu, maker of such classics as Jumping Ash (1976) and The Bride with White Hair (1993). Secondly, for a press screening that so distressed film critic Kale Klein he actually vomited. To be fair, the movie isn’t that bad and those few kids that did see it in the summer of ’97, took it to their hearts. Written and produced by five Hong Kong ex-pat siblings: Dennis, Ron, Christopher, Jeremy and Joseph Law, who relocated to Australia and became doctors, the story tries to impart aspects of Taoist philosophy (harmony, nature, forgiveness and family) and carries a likeable message about siblinghood. You can sense this recreates a fantasy world that was quite personal to the Law brothers, although only Dennis Law remains active in filmmaking, and recently directed the excellent Fatal Contact (2006).

However, the film suffers from Power Rangers silliness, particularly the over the top bellowing of Angus Macfadyen. Ronny Yu reuses many of the tricks from his Hong Kong classics, roping in regular collaborators: fight choreographer Tsui Siu Ming, editor David Wu and genius cinematographer Peter Pau, whose use of the “step-mark” process may be what caused Kale Klein to lose his lunch. Shooting once more on a vast soundstage for his enchanted forest, Yu tries to marry the unfettered imagination of HK wu xia (swordplay) movies with the lavish effects of Hollywood fantasies. Tony Gardner’s rubber suit creations - which also include the burly Willey Beast (Roy Cebellos/voice by Jay Brazeau), a comedy rhino, and a singing monkey-man - leap and tumble amidst such familiar wu xia imagery as falling petals and exploding earth. The martial arts are ably choreographed, but the plot gets bogged down in an awful lot of chatter.

The script also wants to say something profound about death, war and compassion, but winds up caught between pacifist ideals and a need to keep things exciting. Tragedy lurks around every corner, as Master Chung makes an Obi Wan Kenobi style sacrifice and another key character is unmasked as a traitor, a surprise twist that tries to inject some moral complexity. Although somewhat disconcerting, watching this character flit go from genuine friendship with Ryan, to cackling, drug-addicted harlot in league with Komodo, weaves in a neat parallel between bully Brad and his nice girlfriend. It suggests Ryan may be recreating his real-life traumas in a fantasy world, although shrugging the character’s death off as a meaningless aside wastes this promising idea. Considerable more compassion is shown to the chief villains, in a surprise finale that stays true to Taoist philosophy. Coupled with an engaging young lead, these offbeat elements make the film quite interesting, certainly more so than the ninja turtles movies. Or its terrible sequel for that matter: Warriors of Virtue 2: Return to Tao (2002), which ditches the kangaroo suits for an all-human cast.

Click here to watch the opening ten minutes
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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Ronny Yu  (1950 - )

Hong Kong-born director of action and fantasy. Began directing in the early 80s, and made films such as the historical actioner Postman Strikes Back (with Chow Yun-Fat), Chase Ghost Seven Powers and the heroic bloodshed flick China White. The two Bride with White Hair films – both released in 1993 – were hugely popular fantasy adventures, which helped Yu secure his first American film, the kids film Warriors of Virtue. Yu then helmed Bride of Chucky, the fourth and best Child's Play movie, the Brit action film The 51st State and the horror face-off Freddy Vs Jason. He later returned to Asia to helm the likes of Saving General Yang.

 
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