Somehow I, a person fascinated with both Ronny Yu’s kangaroo kung fu movie WARRIORS OF VIRTUE (1997) and the medium of unlikely DTV sequels, lived for many years unaware of the existence of WARRIORS OF VIRTUE 2: RETURN TO TAO (2002). Once I did learn of it I found it in a DVD collection called “6 Family Fantasy-Adventure Movies” along with the other Miramax library titles PINOCCHIO (2002), NEVERWAS (2007), A WRINKLE IN TIME (2003), THE NEVERENDING STORY III: ESCAPE FROM FANTASIA (1996) and, in a strange coincidence, MERLIN’S APPRENTICE (2005), directed by Yu’s frequent editor and BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR 2 director David Wu. They also released it as a double feature with that version of BEOWULF starring Christopher Lambert. It has no Ronny Yu involvement and, worse, no kangaroo involvement, which I’m sure is why nobody ever heard about it. I mean, if there’s a movie where April O’Neill is trying to find the Ninja Turtles and when she does they “lost their powers” so they’re just people wearing different colored headbands then I never heard of that one either. Though I kind of want to.
But obviously it is my professional and ethical duty to extend my tangent from the actual Ronny Yu movies until such a time as I have reviewed this DTV spin-off.
Directed by part 1 writer Michael Vickerman (THE HAUNTING OF SORORITY ROW), written by Kentucky Robinson (KILLER COACH), who is given story credit along with producer Dennis K. Law (executive producer, DRAGON FURY) and the excellently named Rex Piano (co-director, ELF BOWLING THE MOVIE: THE GREAT NORTH POLE ELF STRIKE), it’s another Chinese co-production, this time taking place in Beijing and the magical land of Tao, seemingly represented by, respectively, a studio backlot and a soundstage with the same or similar sets as the original film. Due to unfortunate technological advances it’s shot in clean digital and looks like a TV pilot. On the plus side there are a few brief clips from the original and they’re transferred much better than on its shitty DVD.
The sequel picks up with Ryan Jeffers a few years later when he has lost his leg brace, become a high-ranking kung fu competitor on the American Wushu Championship Team, and blossomed into an adult-looking high school student played by Nathan Phillips (WOLF CREEK, SNAKES ON A PLANE, CHERNOBYL DIARIES). In Beijing for a tournament, he and still-best-friend Chucky (now played by Shedrack Anderson III, “Rudy” in the FAT ALBERT movie) are bullied KARATE-KID-style by the locals and also get involved in terrible bicycle-related slapstick. Then Ryan notices a mural of the Warriors of Virtue on an abandoned building where (for reasons never explained) his Warriors of Virtue medallion can open a portal to Tao.
In Tao he’s welcomed by a hooded dude named Yasbin (Wei Wang, a Wushu national champion according to the episode of Deadliest Warrior he was on), who explains that a new evil guy called Dogon (Kevin Smith – not the CLERKS one, but the one that played Ares on Hercules and Xena) – who, with his short hair, earring and soul patch looks like a former hair metal musician trying to adapt to later fashions – has stolen the element medallions of all but one Warrior. His evil is spreading across Tao, though it still looks like the same artificial forest.
Ryan is excited to be back, and to see that he is included in the heroic statue of the Rooz who saved the kingdom or whatever, but this is dampened by the news that none of them are around.
The Queen of the good guys, Amythis (Nina Liu, LITTLE FISH), sizes up Ryan by sparring with him, and claims to be unimpressed. Most of his old friends are gone: Warriors missing, princess not mentioned, no sign of Willy Beest. He is welcomed by the sons of part 1 character Mudlap, introduced as “Matu and his brothers” instead of all getting names. They promise loyalty to him as if he’s a great friend of their dad’s, even though he’s just a kid he robbed and ratted out but briefly felt bad about it. (I guess he must’ve told the story to his kids differently.)
This time Chucky gets to go to Tao with Ryan. Sadly, he’s stuck in that familiar stereotype of the Wisecracking Young Black Guy Who Mentions Different Pop Culture Things To People Who Obviously Won’t Understand Them. After beating Ryan during practice at the beginning he does a pretty good Michael Jackson dance, including a “Hooooooo!” When he goes into a Chinese restaurant (remember, they are in China) he seems scared of Chinese food and asks for french fries or pizza. I don’t know about this character.
But it’s interesting to imagine his perspective on all this: for several years he has been concerned and sometimes embarrassed by his friend’s belief that when he fell into a sewer during a bullying incident he was transported to a magical world protected by mystical animal people. Now, to Chucky’s shock, he’s in that magical world, watching kung fu battles against an army of knights with capes, masks and axes. It’s all real, it’s all incredible, but… where the fuck are these kangaroos you went on and on about? I see no kangaroos. Somehow he has the restraint not to ever bring that up.
I probly don’t need to go into detail about the story, but I will say that Dogon comes to earth and there is that sort of HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION/THE SHADOW type stuff about an ancient warrior wandering around a modern city wearing a cape and causing trouble, including making the fruit at an outdoor market rot, beating up the bullies that picked on Ryan (who then turn into good guys and throw food at the cops to help Ryan get away from them) and getting mistaken for a street performer.
There’s some semi-cool choreography, including when Ryan is on a ladder that gets chopped in half and (briefly) uses it as stilts. Stunt director and fight choreographer Zhang Jinghua only has a few other credits, including some work on the DAREDEVIL movie and being an action director for something called CI YE (2013).
I can’t honestly say I consider the first movie good, and this is less of what’s good in it without adding much of anything new. But what keeps it from being unwatchable is that there are plenty of decent wire-fu scenes with the main character involved this time. Yee’s cool metal rings make a return, and they make swords out of water. I like that. The beauty of film grain and Peter Pau cinematography is sorely missing, but the lack of frame-stepping at least makes the choreography easier to appreciate.
I have to admit, I kept hoping maybe they’d get to be kangaroos for at least one shot at the end. They keep showing the statue of the Rooz and for half a second I’d think “Yes!” and then realize what it was.
When they do regain their powers they get goofy costumes and face paint themed around their elements. Fire looks like Heat Miser. I wish they’d brought this look in earlier. It’s not a kangaroo, but it’s better than nothing.
Another missed opportunity: I wish they’d brought back part 1 lead villain Komodo, since he was turned good. I’m sure they’d have to recast, but they were okay doing that with Ryan and Chucky. It would be a cool way to bring in the themes of peace and redemption, which are unfortunately de-emphasized in this one.
Also I missed the spider-like Barbarotious. But there are a few minor allusions to characters from the first movie. At wushu practice Ryan glimpses an old man and for a second mistakes him for his Yoda, Master Chung.
And there’s a nice slo mo shot of a cook at a restaurant tossing food in a pan, reminding us of Ryan’s role model Ming. (He really oughta figure into this – it was already weird that he wasn’t more important in the first one.)
To partly balance the absence of these characters there’s an excellent new henchman named Volta (Xiao Yuewen, DREAM JOURNEY 1-3, stunts in THE MUSKETEER) who has a bizarre way of moving. I don’t know, maybe it’s just drunken kung fu or something like that, but it struck me as some type of monkey kung fu with a little bit of krumping mixed in.
And Dogon has a squad of cool looking warriors in white doll-like masks. The first time it showed them I thought they were dummies.
Unfortunately there was a tragic accident related to the production. Kevin Smith had arranged to finish up early so he could spend some time with his family before reporting to Navy SEAL boot camp in preparation for TEARS OF THE SUN. After celebrating the completion of his filming, he took a walk through the Central China Television film studio and, unseen by anyone, climbed a castle tower built for another film. He slipped and fell approximately three stories, sustaining head injuries that ended up being fatal. He was only 38. WARRIORS OF VIRTUE 2 ends with a dedication to him: “For our friend Kevin, who represented the best of every virtue.”
Kind of a bummer to go out on this particular one, if you have to go out at all, but at least he had one of the main roles, and I’m sure he had fun making it.
It’s hard to believe in the existence of a sequel to a movie that it’s hard to believe in the existence of. But here it is. It’s too bad that it has very little of the weirdness, beauty or surprising philosophy of the original, and that it looks like a pilot to a syndicated after school TV series. But I guess I’ve seen worse.
P.S. There is some inconsistency about the title. I used what it says on the opening credits: WARRIORS OF VIRTUE 2: RETURN TO TAO. But the front and back cover of the DVD remove the number and add a ‘the’ to make it WARRIORS OF VIRTUE: THE RETURN TO TAO. The credits on the back cover add a roman numeral: “WARRIORS OF VIRTUE II: THE RETURN TO TAO.” So I guess you’re invited to choose your preferred variation. I’m thinking of switching mine to RETURN TO TAO: THE WARRIORS OF VIRTUE PART TWO, but I need to marinate on it for a while.
Next week: Yu makes his first American horror movie and changes the world
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