Entering the world of “Warriors of Virtue” is rather like tuning into the Home Shopping Network. This fanciful fairyland of kangaroo men clashing with bygone armies just screams of merchandising tie-ins. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that the picture evinces minimal cynicism, emphasizing style, action and noble sentiments. Still, this amalgam of “Mortal Kombat,” “Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “A Connecticut Yankee” is a slack-jawed kids’ adventure in which genre conventions chafe against cutting-edge martial arts. In the quest to establish a franchise, the film is apt to finish second to its paraphernalia. It should open strongly but lacks the invention to sustain fierce marketplace competition.
The bookended yarn begins in the present with the youthful travails of Ryan Jeffers (Mario Yedidia), a game kid with a bad leg and inattentive parents. His adult surrogate is Ming (Dennis Dun), a chef with kung fu moves who introduces him to the world of Tao and a book that will serve as a road map to his inner strengths.
Peer pressure provides the catalyst for the adventure. Desperate to be part of the in crowd, Ryan succumbs to a dare that places him in physical danger. Sucked into a watery vortex, he emerges dripping in a modern Oz where evil forces are applying the boot heel to good villagers for a precious element that keeps their tyrannical leader, Komodo (Angus Macfadyen), perpetually youthful.
With a dynamic that’s hardly novel, and a script that is little more than functional, style becomes a crucial element in the telling of “Warriors of Virtue.” Hong Kong director Ronny Yu — best known for “The Bride With White Hair” — understands that visual razzle-dazzle is necessary to buoy up a tale in which plot turns are all but demarcated by traffic signs. He enhances well-orchestrated fights with extensive use of slo-mo and with frames filled with flying leaves and other unidentified atmospheric debris.
The plot is simply about Komodo’s use of force to gain the life force. And when that’s spent, he has his eyes on Ryan’s book, which holds the key to immortality. The only thing standing in his way is the sagacious Master Chung (Chao-Li Chi) and his five-kanga fighting force, whose strength represents the five virtues of nature according to the Tao. Suffice it to say that these bouncing brawlers are darn good at battling off the hordes.
The prospect of actors in kangaroo suits sounds considerably worse than what’s onscreen: Alterian Studios’ creations have a near-organic look. Only the lip-synching seems a tad contrived, and one of the brood grunts like Billy Bob Thornton. The human cast also tend to play their roles slightly over the top. Chi is goodness personified, to Macfadyen’s campy, Rickman/Curry-style villain, while Yedidia’s character is almost too perfect. Marley Shelton has the best of it as a seemingly virginal heroine who is hooked on the power of the life force.
Handsomely mounted, pic has a sumptuous feel thanks to Peter Pau’s golden images and lush sets by Eugenio Zanetti. Interiors were shot in Beijing, and, not coincidentally, the producers’ family is a major manufacturer of children’s toys in Hong Kong. That tradition has been handed down to the sons, and they’ve given it an appropriate contempo twist.