Warriors of Virtue Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

All you care about is... things! You sold me out! You sold yourself out!

Okay, once in a while a movie will come along that I consider a 'guilty pleasure', and "Warriors of Virtue", financed by four rich Chinese doctor brothers, is one of them. There are so many aspects that one can lambaste the movie for. It is marketed as a 'kids movie' (though I am quite suspect of this given the amount of swearing and somewhat brutal violence). The protagonist finds himself in many 'Spielberg moments' (if you've seen "E.T.", "The Goonies", or "Hook", you'll know what I'm talking about). The acting ranges from tolerable to juvenile to just plain bad. Characterization leaves much to be desired, and the reliance on physical comedy is excessive. And they break the golden rule of screenwriting in several places: show it, don't say it.

Ryan Jeffers (Mario Yedidia) wears a leg brace (just like Forrest Gump!), and dreams of the day that he will become a football hero and get the homecoming queen. He spends a lot of time in a Chinese restaurant speaking with Ming, a cook, who gives him a book on martial arts, the Book of Tao. One afternoon, as he is stuck being the football team's waterboy, he masterfully crafts a strategy that allows the team to win a game. The star quarterback that follows his advice is upset by having been upstaged by someone so small and bullies Ryan into an initiation rite. However, an accident happens and Ryan falls into a swirling vortex of water... only to awaken in the fantastic netherworld of Tao. He is attacked by some soldiers, who steal the book from him. When the evil emperor of Tao, Komodo (Angus Macfadyen-- I think he was in "Braveheart") sees the book, he demands that Ryan be found, since the book is the famous lost manuscript of Tao and only 'the newcomer' is able to read it. Meanwhile, Ryan meets the five Roos-- kangaroo warriors that protect the last free village in Tao, each of them embodying the forces of nature. Yun, uses the force of water and embodies benevolence. Yee uses the strength of metal, and is righteous. Lai uses wood, and represents order. Chi uses the force of fire, and conveys wisdom. Finally, Tsun uses earth, and is loyal. Together, they must defeat Komodo, before the last village falls.

So now you're wondering why on Earth did I like this movie. Essentially, this was a Chinese wu xia pian (martial chivalry) epic, incorporating many aspects of the Hong Kong mystical swordplay films. Not surprisingly, director Ronny Yu, a Hong Kong transplant, directed many of these, the most notable being "Phantom Lover" and "Bride with White Hair", before emigrating to Australia. You have your women in long flowing robes gliding through the air, the imaginatively-choreographed kung-fu fight sequences, supernatural forces, exposition of Chinese philosophy, and even the time-honored Chinese movie tradition of 'redemption through death'. Even the thematic elements that are a mainstay of the genre were found in WOV.

One aspect of Chinese and Japanese swordplay epics is the presence of two conflicting impulses in man, identified by the Japanese as giri (duty or obligation) and ninjo (emotion, or any unselfconscious impulse, such as love, friendship, or vengeance). One has to only look at the films of Ken Takakura or John Woo to find excellent examples of the unresolved conflict of these two opposing extremes. This too, is found in WOV, with a couple of characters with conflicting mandates between what they do, and who they are. However, the poignancy of the conflict is lost due to the sketchy narrative framework upon which the story is built. If a full exploration of the backstory of these characters had been done, then perhaps there would have been more emotional resonance in their actions.

Technically, the film is well done. Ronny Yu carries over the beautiful cinematography, lighting, and set design that won him awards for "Bride with White Hair". The fight sequences are stunning, employing the stop-action and aggressive jump-cuts that Wong Kar-Wai used in his own existential take of this genre, "Ashes of Time". And true to any post-John Woo era movie-- lots of slo-mo sequences (Ronny can make the cooking of fried rice look as graceful as ballet).

Yes, this film left much to be desired, and I cringed through several sections of clunky dialogue (just like watching an episode of "Sliders"), but still, I had fun. Any aficionado of Hong Kong wushu movies will probably enjoy this.

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