Everybody Wasn't Kung Fu Fighting

The Law brothers' kangaroo movie was an epic failure, but they keep on kicking.

The warriors are in trouble when the tale begins. Their leader has accidentally broken their vow never to kill anyone and has exiled himself.

Their only hope may be young Ryan Jeffers, a kid with a limp, parents who are never around, and low self-esteem. His sole friend is a Chinese cook/martial-arts guru who has given him the mysterious Manuscript of Legend to inspire him to believe in himself. During an initiation to join a clique of cool kids, the boy tries to cross a whirlpool on a sewer pipe but falls into the vortex and is plunged straight into the good-evil battle royale in the land of Tao. On one side stands the vile Komodo, who is exploiting the land's primary resource, the Life Springs, so that he may remain perpetually young. Opposing him are a band of villagers protected by an old Chinese master, Chung, and the five Warriors of Virtue, humanoid kangaroos with tails and thin, rabbit-like ears but no pouches.

Komodo has the upper hand. The four remaining warriors, all martial-arts masters, are formidable, but they can't hope to win without the benevolent power of their exiled leader. They fear the sacred Manuscript will fall into Komodo's hands.

Like the warriors, Denver's Law brothers--surgeons Dennis, Ron, Chris and Jeremy--feared their movie would fail as well. A year and a half ago, after years of planning and production, they premiered Warriors of Virtue on 2,200 screens nationwide.

On May 8, 1997, the day before its national release, the filmmakers held a premiere screening in Denver that drew more than 1,000 people. The event raised around $100,000 for Big Brothers and Sisters of Northern Colorado, but that was the end of their good fortune. Unlike their screen heroes, who eventually triumph, the Law brothers were unable to save their film, which scraped in a feeble $3.5 million during its opening week.

Warriors cost $56 million to produce. The Law family put up most of the reported $36 million shooting budget themselves, though they say other investors were also involved. MGM distributed the film and sunk a reported $20 million on prints and advertising. But Warriors grossed only $6.5 million in the ten weeks of its short life in theaters. The film didn't do much better when it hit video, earning $7.69 million from the date of its release in September 1997 through mid-December of last year. (While Warriors did well enough to place 225th out of the 1,000 top-grossing video rentals of 1997, Jerry Maguire, the top video release of 1997, made more than $60 million.)

Even the family's ace in the hole let them down. Over the course of 25 years, the Law brothers' father, Joseph, had built his business, Smile Industries, into one of the largest toy companies in China. The merchandising tie-ins to the film seemed obvious, and the company's South China factory turned out more than a million Warriors toys for distribution worldwide. Ron says a distributor in France bought about 100,000 of the toys to use in advertising campaigns for the films. "They sold well for a while," says Jeremy. "When the movie went away, the sales also went away. That's pretty typical."

For most people, losing so much of a $36 million investment would mean big trouble, but for the Laws, the movie was a game.

Though he was the principal investor, Joseph Law says he doesn't know what the film's current numbers are. The brothers are vague on the subject, but Dennis says, "If you don't have a lot of money, don't play baccarat in Las Vegas. You shouldn't buy an office building for $10 million if you only have $5 million." The average return on investment for a movie, he points out, is 4 percent. As money from the film continues to trickle in, the numbers are still negative. However, he says, "We didn't go into it for that. We had a passion for something."

Ron Law adds that the family is "very strong financially. The financial aspect of the movie has not affected us at all. A significant portion of the film is covered." The brothers say their film performed better in foreign markets and has been shown numerous times recently on cable's Showtime channel. (A Showtime spokesperson says the network is "not disappointed" with the film's ratings.)

Besides, the Laws have other business ventures, such as a Christmas-products business and real-estate holdings around Denver, including several downtown parking lots and a low-rise office building near 16th and Lincoln; they even own the ground under the Paramount Theatre.

The family members are proud that they actually managed to make a big-budget, feature-length film on their own dime and chutzpah. "I'm not in this film business," says Joseph. "I'm excited to finance the whole project with the children. I thought the whole movie laid out a lot of meaning. I never expected to be rich on it."

Even if they didn't make the movie for money, his sons wish the movie would have done better. "The first weekend, I think it should have been better," Dennis says. "It's disappointing that Austin Powers did better [grossing $53.8 million]--that movie was dog meat. It's a dumb guy and girls with boobs half-showing."

Warriors of Virtue--about kung-fu kangaroos fighting evil forces in the magical land of Tao--is better than it sounds. Thirty-six million still buys a good-looking film, especially when the money isn't paying the salaries of star actors or hotshot directors. The movie looks foggy and otherworldly, and medieval costumes give the characters a kind of neo-samurai appearance. While constant slow-motion scenes quickly grow tiresome (and feel somewhat amateurish), the high-wire stuntwork has the grace and complexity of a ballet elevated fifteen feet off the ground.

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