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[At a restaurant, to the waiter]
Look, man, ahm, have you got any french fries, pizza...?
[the waiter brings a dish of a fish head to the table]
Have you got anything that's not looking at me?
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Produced five years after the original WARRIORS OF VIRTUE but not released in North American until almost a decade afterwards, RETURN TO TAO is the remarkably low-key sequel to one of the more exotic mid-'90s nostalgia classics that no one was expecting. The fact that it was indeed made but under considerably weaker financial backing is even more surprising, not to mention disappointing. The original was a minor fantasy epic, rich with puppetry and special effects, most of which were not able to be recreated for the sequel. But you know what? - not being a huge buff of the original, I actually like this one more. It works better as an action movie, and that's what I'm about. I can see this one remaining undiscovered by most people, but personally, I'm glad I saw it for the sake of comparison.
The story: Now a martial arts practitioner, 16-year-old Ryan Jeffers (Nathan Phillips) is transported back into the world of Tao to do what the Warriors of Virtue could not and defeat a new evil overlord (Kevin Smith).
The DVD cover may have given you a hint, but here's the fact, people: the Warriors are no longer anthropomorphic kangaroos. They're completely human now, a fact that the film explains by them having "reached a higher level" but which is clearly a matter of the filmmakers not having the budget to afford the costumes and effects of the Ronny Yu production. With that said, director Michael Vickerman - who helmed the original's screenplay - deserves credit for recreating the rest of Tao with surprising accuracy: it's a little under-populated with few returning characters, but the forests and the Life Spring village in particular look a lot like they did years ago, and a familiar soundtrack and multiple character references really make it feel like the same world. In this sense, RETURN TO TAO is a more faithful sequel than, say, RETURN TO OZ was to THE WIZARD OF OZ.
It should be known that Kevin Smith - stalwart fantasy villain from XENA, HERCULES, and RIVERWORLD - died as an indirect result of his involvement in the movie, which automatically gives it some gravity that is simultaneously diminished by the fact that he really doesn't deliver a good performance for this one. The rest of the cast, however, does alright: save for one, the Warriors don't contribute actively to the movie until the last 13 minutes, leaving the dramatic weight to be carried by Nathan Phillips, along with Nina Liu as the queen of Tao and Shedrack Anderson as Ryan's returning buddy Chucky, and between them, they make things work. On the martial arts side of things, Nathan and Nina do surprisingly well, though not without much help from stunt doubles. I vastly prefer these fight scenes to the original's offerings: foregoing that annoying reduced frame effect, the sequel offers eight creative wushu encounters, highlighted by a weapons-filled match in the forest and a fast-paced stickfight between Nina and Kevin. The overuse of wirework is clearly derivative of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and can easily get on your nerves, but I deem it forgivable.
I'm not sure what kind of budget the filmmakers had to work with, but it seems to have been utilized well enough, since the CGI is limited and it more or less looks like everything that was attempted was pulled off and didn't have to be fudged. Occasionally, the production has the feeling of a TV movie, but this too is overlookable. Cumulatively, what we have here is a flawed but overall decent fantasy martial arts feature that just happens to be based on a cult favorite. Liking the original is no guarantee that you'll like this one, but offhand viewers can watch this one and make what they will with it. Grant it consideration on a slow night.
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