Everybody Wasn't Kung Fu Fighting
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.
Warriors of Virtue was shot in Beijing; Dennis says it was the most expensive film ever shot in China. The crew was headed by Hong Kong director Ronny Yu, who previously had made The Bride With White Hair, a 1993 adult fairy tale about rival clans led by two warriors who are also in love with each other. Using a technique called "step printing," Yu provided Warriors with a signature style. The fight sequences were shot at eleven frames per second, slower than the normal 24; each frame was then copied, and the scenes were shown at 22 frames per second. The effect is a surrealistic dreamscape of slightly blurred action that moves almost as fast as real time but feels much slower.
The Law brothers also assembled a talented production crew. The cinematography, production design, music and effects are vivid, and a competent cast--led by Angus McFayden, Braveheart's Robert the Bruce--gamely bring a little dignity to all the martial-arts action and tricky film techniques. The Laws also snagged production designer Eugenio Zanetti, who won an Oscar for his work on the period film Restoration. The land of Tao resembles a hybrid out of Star Wars: one-half swampy Dagobah, one-half tree-lined Ewok village. And the lair of the evil Komodo looks like a cross between the flamboyant chambers of a sultan--Komodo at one point descends from the ceiling in an opulent bed--and a domed beehive.
The film's major weakness--and a significant one--is a derivative and unfocused script that echoes everything from Star Wars to The Wizard of Oz but most heavily Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Still, many reviews were unexpectedly charitable. The Charleston Gazette wrote that "what director Ronny Yu has done with Warriors of Virtue is create a world and a mythology almost Tolkienesque in their detail and complexity." For a kids' flick, said the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Warriors is "mightily ambitious. Its big budget spread across the screen, it liberally sprinkles life lessons and morals throughout a story that combines fantasy and martial arts. It's complex, but it works."
Other reviews simply tried to sound nice. "The road to mediocre movies is paved with good intentions," wrote the Baltimore Sun, later asking "how many blurred slow-motion fights filled with flying kangaroos and blowing leaves can you look at before getting a Roo-size headache?"
And a few just were mean. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "With its otherworldly lighting, fog-bound sets, ethereal soundtrack, the youth-oriented fantasy...resembles a series of outtakes from Enya's video library. What it does not resemble, however, is a coherent movie." The Arizona Republic review noted that the film was better than the Power Rangers movie, but "if the film broke and you ended up staring at a blank screen for 90 minutes that would also be better than Power Rangers."
Dennis Law refers to the critics as "left-wing liberals" who just want to protect children; that's why many of them, he says, thought the film was too scary and violent for youngsters.
The Laws point to an article in Action Figure Magazine that rated the Warriors of Virtue toy line the best tie-in with a movie for 1997, beating out Batman and Robin. But according to Nearly Perfect Data, a New York firm that tracks the toy industry, the toys grossed around $140,000 in the United States. Successful toy lines like the Power Rangers, however, can sell upwards of $100,000,000.
Dennis says the merchandise was created neither to push the film nor to cover costs. "Everybody sensible knew toys wouldn't sell the film," he says. "The film had to hit the market with a strong stride."
But even though their film hit the market with barely a hop, the Law brothers aren't hanging their heads. "It was screened world-wide," Dennis says. "It was viewed by millions of people."
"It was almost the film we wanted to make," adds Jeremy. "Certain aspects of the film I think could have been better. We could have told the story better, some of the action could have been better."
"I don't know why it didn't do better," says Ron, though he probably supplies his own answer a moment later. "It's not a great film," Ron says. "it's an okay film. It's very hard to market a film without a name."
Babe, he notes a second later, is a conspicuous exception--"but Babe was a great film."
The business office of the Law brothers is a strange place. In Dennis Law's office, a clay cast of Yun, the leader of the kangaroos (or "Rooz"), presides over the room with a stern frown. There is also an action figure of Yun wielding his sword, which resembles a glowing chunk of log. Nearby is a gift sent to Dennis by a young man from Cincinnati: a portfolio of artwork inspired by the film, including colored chalk drawings and nicely executed pencil illustrations.
In Ron's office, there's a foam-and-latex headpiece of another Roo, complete with fur and whiskers. There's also a large-scale model and a small action version of warrior Yee, the strong, silent Roo who whups ass with a ring made of metal. The action figure's head and arms move, as does its tail.
Christmas Santas and trains and trees are everywhere. And there's a stock board on the wall, charting the family's various financial holdings.
Dennis and Ron Law came to the United States from China in the 1960s; Chris ventured over in the mid-'70s, and Jeremy followed at the end of the decade. Dennis says there was no pressure from their father to join the family business--and none of them had any desire to. "When you're right in the midst of it, it's not that interesting," Dennis says. "I was watching Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey."
His brothers took his lead and went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Dennis finished his degree in 1969, Ron in 1971, Chris in 1982 and Jeremy in 1987. Then they followed him to Denver.
"My brother Dennis was the trailblazer," says Chris. "Over a fifteen-year period of time, he brought us to Colorado, advertising good weather, great skiing, easy lifestyle. At that time, we didn't have any specific place we had to be. We were imminently employable as physicians anywhere in the country." He says it was a simple matter of deciding if they should "break up the family or hang together."
Dennis downplays his influence. "It's not terribly difficult to be attracted to medicine," he says. "It's a noble profession, and you can make a good living."
Jeremy adds that the toy business was "different back then. It was a different world. Medicine looked better. Twenty years later, that has changed."
In his office, the trailblazer is in the middle of telling about the time a Chinese crew shot a documentary on the making of Warriors of Virtue when his pager goes off. He explains that although he retired last January from private practice, he didn't retire from surgery. He is still an associate clinical professor of surgery at University Hospital. "I have so many obligations, running around the world," he says. Despite Dennis's early independence, his obligations now seem inevitable: He is starting to take over the manufacturing aspects of his father's company.
He pulls out a purple stuffed bear speckled with silver. The bear has a holographic patch on its belly that displays "1999" from one angle and "2000" from another. Squeeze the tummy and an electronic voice chirps, "Make my millennium!" Nearby is a millennium clock, dutifully counting down to January 1, 2000. There are also millennium champagne glasses--plastic purple flutes with the same holographic display. And there are plenty of holographic movie posters that Dennis promises will be "the advertising medium of the 21st century."
"I have done everything I want to accomplish in surgery," Dennis says. "I took care of tens of thousands of patients over twenty years." In the past few years he has practiced medicine three days a week, and he says that when he was preparing to make the movie, he simply was a doctor during the day and a producer at night. Still, he says, he often felt "pulled from both sides."
"You just appropriate your time," Jeremy says of that dual life. "You do what you have to do." He adds that making a movie about kangaroos was "a leap, but not that big a leap. We're doctors, but the family background is products and merchandise."
And they were all fans of the kinetic action movies of Hong Kong. According to Chris, Dennis and his father were strolling the streets of Hong Kong back in 1992, daydreaming out loud about a story involving kangaroos.
"We agreed with using kangaroos because it is a stand-up animal," says Joseph. "It can stand up and fight. They look really strong. They look heroic."
Dennis says he saw a program years ago featuring fighting kangaroos. "They eviscerated each other," he notes. "They're indigenously a hand-to-hand fighter." The Laws didn't choose an animal more easily associated with China, like a panda bear, Dennis says, because "bears have been humanized. Now they're fuzzy and huggable. I'm not sure they're a good symbol of an action hero."
When Dennis returned to the States, he pitched his ideas to his brothers over lunch. "He turned to me," says Chris, "and said, 'You're a story writer--why don't you do something?'"
While Chris did dabble in writing, he told his brother, "You are absolutely freaking out of your brain. You have no idea what you're doing."
That was true. Dennis had taken out a trademark on the name "Kung Fu Kangaroos," but nothing had happened for nearly a year, until the trademark was about to expire. "We were gonna throw this away or we were gonna do something," says Chris.
As their idea developed, the Rooz became linked to the five Chinese virtues: benevolence, loyalty, righteousness, wisdom and order. Taking it a step further, those virtues became linked, respectively, with five elements: water, earth, metal, fire and wood.
The brothers placed an ad in trade magazines looking for writers, and they eventually settled on Mike Vickerman, who had never written a screenplay that had been produced. Dennis began making contacts and friends in Hollywood and was introduced to high-powered entertainment attorney Peter Dekom, who at one time represented such industry bigwigs as George Lucas, John Travolta, Rob Reiner and director Andy Davis (The Fugitive). "Dennis has an amazing sales ability," says Chris. "He's amazing with a pitch, a fantastic strategist. He made sure he met the right people."
Dekom hooked up the brothers with the studios. But Vickerman hadn't finished the screenplay, and studio reaction was understandably lukewarm. Distribution companies did come forward with offers to finance the film, but that would have meant relinquishing control over their idea, so the brothers decided to finance the film themselves.
In 1995 Dennis made the first of three trips to the Cannes Film Festival in France, hammering out a distribution deal with MGM.
"The Cannes Film Festival is a place to do business if you have to," says Dennis. "It's not a glamorous place." He saw the same stars he might have seen in Los Angeles. "I've been invited to a lot of parties. They're just packed with beer. It's like a fraternity house."
Meanwhile, Chris was busy helping with the screenplay and creating the pre-production bible--which included everything important about the land of Tao, from clothes to mythology. Ron became the taskmaster. "The fact the film was shot on schedule and on budget was the work of Ron," Chris says. "He scrutinized every contract, got on everyone's case for being too slow or pricey."
During shooting, Jeremy says, they tried to keep an upbeat attitude about the film's prospects. "Any project of this magnitude, you have to have an optimistic vision of the outcome," he says. "We were very optimistic that this was something people wanted to see.
"Despite the box office in the U.S," he adds, "it's hard for me to say to you it's a lousy show."
The brothers speculate that the film's PG rating hurt its chances. Dennis says the family debated whether the film had "mistakenly targeted an audience too young."
The film was initially rated PG-13, but some minor cuts brought it down to PG. "It's pretty clear from the outset that we're talking about fighting kangaroos, so you're kind of stuck with a certain genre or a certain rating," Jeremy says, and he questions whether such a movie could really be taken seriously as PG-13. "PG-13 as a big category does better than PG at the box office," he adds. "But that includes movies right at the brink of R, so it's adult, mature audiences." But a PG film is "at the brink of G, which is the kiss of death," he laughs.
Dennis says he supported a PG rating, but he admits now that the "film would have done better PG-13." However, he says, "we really wanted to do something for children."
Warriors was also doomed when its trailer didn't get much play amid the glut of PG-13 films (Liar, Liar, Anaconda, Dante's Peak, to name a few) that were released in the months prior to its premiere. Though the rerelease of Star Wars was rated PG and the Warriors trailer rode its coattails, word of the film didn't get out. The film had the same advertising expenditure as Breakdown or Austin Powers, Dennis says, but "it was released on May 9, when the entire audience demographic was still in school."
Ron says it's the distributor's fault. "I'm quite disappointed in MGM and their ability to market our film in terms of presenting a concept," he says. "I don't want to bemoan they did a bad job, but everything has to click. It's harder to promote a PG film."
MGM officials decline to comment about the film.
"Media advertising is a spark," Jeremy adds. "If you're a good idea, the spark catches fire. If you're a bad idea, it just keep sparking and doesn't go anywhere."
Maybe Warriors was a bad idea. "I think people don't like fighting kangaroos," Jeremy offers bluntly.
"We didn't break away because there was a certain familiarity with the treatment of those heroes. They were mutant heroes, and guess what--we're tired of mutant heroes.
"What held us back," he continues, "is exactly what we advertised: Mutant kangaroo guys, the reason why my brother dreamt up the whole property."
Though a Warriors Special Edition rerelease isn't likely, the film has played at film festivals from Shanghai to Helsinki to Brussels to Portugal to San Marco Island and has played several times on China's national television network, CCTV.
Helsinki Film Festival staffer Mika Seppala tells Westword that he selected the film after he saw it at the Fantasporto Festival in Portugal in February 1998. "I liked the fresh approach to this kung-fu magic sorcery genre, which has been quite popular in Chinese/Hong Kong films. I think the high production values were the main reason I did the selection."
Seppala adds that the festival had screened some of director Yu's previous work. He says the film was well-received by audiences, though critics there found the film "naive and silly."
"I think the film represented in its entirety what we thought we wanted to make: a fantasy action movie," says Dennis. "It didn't shame us. If I made Something About Mary [a film that has grossed $174.1 million through December 27], my parents wouldn't want to come into public."
The family is moving ahead, and Dennis is still running the show. "We did the project--we thought it was our own idea, it was different, a new kind of family entertainment," he says. "Since its airing, it's brought us a series of opportunities."
One of those opportunities again involves animals. Dennis is now working on an animated series for China's CCTV called Monkey Quest, which he describes as an inexact translation of an old Chinese fable featuring a monkey, a pig and a Buddhist monk. In a brief promotional video, a monkey hero possessed with supernatural powers flies around and fights bad guys. The show, which is set to air in June, has some of the spunk associated with Japanese animation. The Laws will handle licensing of the merchandise.
They're also preparing a Chinese digital-animation series about a dragon. And the family's ten-year-old Christmas business, Holiday Creations, continues to churn out "scenes," populated by moving figurines, that are sold at stores such as Target and Wal-Mart.
And a sequel to Warriors could begin shooting next year. It would be a direct-to-video project as well as a pilot for a new television show.
Who in America would watch fighting kangaroos on prime-time television when no one saw them on the screen? "If you focus on dollars and cents, I can't argue with you," says Dennis. But, he says, potential backers focus on a malleable product that can fill a void: youth-oriented fantasy shows. "People like the property."
Apparently, they'll like it even more after the kung-fu kangaroos are bounced from the story. "The Rooz may not have to be Rooz outside the Tao," Dennis says cryptically. "You may see them as forces of nature."
Which means they're toast. "We're getting rid of the heroes that started the whole thing," Chris acknowledges.
In Warriors of Virtue, five kangaroos stood for benevolence, loyalty, righteousness, wisdom and order. Like their film counterparts, the brothers already knew about the value of loyalty. Their experience making the film--where success eluded them in a way it hasn't in all of their other ventures--made them a bit more wise.
"I can't tell you the amount of things we learned," Chris says. "You get a great deal of insight into the moviemaking business. We certainly learned to work together as a unit, the family and brothers. For me, personally, I learned a completely different set of insights into what I can do. That was the most valuable lesson."
"If you knew the result, and given the amount of work and number of years and the financial success, you have to be frank and say it wasn't worth it," says Ron. "But it was the most exciting period of my life. I couldn't wait to get up for the next day.
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