When I was a kid, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was being chased by a group of gigantic kangaroos hellbent on murdering me. For years, I couldn’t understand where the dreams came from—until recently, when I offhandedly mentioned them to my boyfriend.
Image: The five Warriors of Virtue.
As I described the details of the nightmares—the thickly wooded forest I repeatedly found myself tearing through, and the way the kangaroos moved as if they were more human than animal—my boyfriend gave me the most perplexed of looks and pulled out his phone to Google something. Just as I was getting to the bit about how my dreams always ended with me falling down a massive garbage disposal, he interrupted me to explain that I was more or less describing the plot of Warriors of Virtue, the much-maligned fantasy movie directed by Ronny Yu in 1997.
Confused, I took the phone and began to read the synopsis as he pulled up YouTube to find the film’s trailer. Moments later, the anthropomorphic kangaroo creatures from the darkest corners of my adolescent imagination were on my TV in all of their unholy glory. Though I couldn’t recall ever having seen the movie, its details began coming back to me bit by bit as the trailer played.
Warriors of Virtue tells the story of Ryan Jeffers (Mario Yedidia), a teen with a disability who dreams of playing for his high school football team, but makes do participating as a water boy.
Ryan’s a smart kid whose love of football translates into a brilliant sense of strategy that goes unappreciated by his teammates and coach, but it’s something that his friend Ming (Dennis Dun), a line cook with astonishing kung-fu skills, can see clearly. Ryan’s life takes a turn for the extraordinary after Ming gifts him with a mystical book. He’s transported to the magical land of Tao, where all manner of otherworldly creatures are locked in an epic war for natural resources.
Ryan’s arrival with the Manuscript of Tao draws the attention of Komodo (Angus Macfayden), an evil sorcerer who exudes a Loki-like, eccentric feyness (fey as in Urban Dictionary’s second definition), and the legendary Warriors of Virtue, a group of anthropomorphic kangaroos who protect Tao.
Each of the Warriors embodies one of the five aspects of the Wu Xing, the five natural elements—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—that represent various phases of change in many Chinese belief systems. Ryan’s role in the grand scheme of Warriors of Virtue isn’t so much to act as a hero, but rather as a student who learns valuable life lessons as he accompanies the Warriors in their quest to retrieve the Manuscript from Komodo in order to stop him from invading other worlds.
Watching Warriors of Virtue in 2018 is a fascinating experience because it’s impossible not to see the complicated, international production deal behind the film written all over the screen. Warriors of Virtue was a co-production between MGM and the China Film Co-Production Corporation, China’s largest state-owned film studio. Because of the growing profitability of the international box office, Warriors of Virtue was designed to have cross-cultural appeal baked into its script, and while that sort of thinking might have worked in theory, it fails epically in the film itself.
Everything about Ryan is generic in that traditional Hollywood sort of way that filmmakers are only now just starting to try to get away from. He’s every white kid from the suburbs of ‘90s television who likes comic books, sports, and Michael Jackson. His nondescript disability is what separates him from his peers, but that aspect of his character is written away as soon as he arrives in Tao, where his leg is magically healed and he’s able to run around to his heart’s content. Tao, oddly, comes across as a K’un L’un kind of wonderland that, despite being populated by mostly white people, is defined by trope-y Eastern iconography that’s presented in a flattened, stereotypical way that makes the ideology out to be fanciful mythology more than anything else.
From left to right: Yee, the Warrior of Metal as portrayed by Doug Jones, fighting Angus Macfayden as Komodo.
The Warriors (affectionately referred to as “Roos” by the people of Tao) are as terrifying to look at as they are plainly the studios’ attempt at dreaming up a cast of characters perfect for merchandising opportunities. Even though the prosthetic and makeup industry in 1997 was nothing like what it is today, it’s astonishing just how scary as fuck the Warriors’ faces are. While the kangaroo bodies are impressive, the faces are a warped approximation of what you might get if you engineered a human whose genetics were spliced with marsupial DNA. They’re simultaneously stiff, rubbery, and eerily organic in a way that makes it difficult to watch when the actors beneath the makeup attempt to emote.
As harrowing an experience watching Warriors of Virtue is, you can’t ignore the film’s ambition. Long before Matt Damon set out to save ancient China from an alien invasion in The Great Wall, Warriors of Virtue was attempting to be the kind of movie that’s come to define box office success. Even though its execution was woefully lacking, Warriors of Virtue understood that one of the keys to launching a sprawling action-adventure franchise in the 20th century was capturing an audience outside of the Western markets—something that the industry’s been fixated on for the better part of its existence.
Had Warriors of Virtue’s producers had the ability to understand another important key to this type of franchise’s success— to tell a story that’s actually good and not necessarily built around milquetoast, forgettable white characters—then the movie might have been a success. But hey, the ‘90s were a different time.
Warriors of Virtue isn’t a good movie, but it’s definitely a novel snapshot of an industry at a crucial point in its history where major, necessary changes were written on the wall. It’s also pure, kangaroo-based nightmare fuel... if you’re into that sorta thing.