We love Cynthia Rothrock here at the ISCFC. From managing to maintain some dignity in the truly rotten “Tiger Claws” series, to a fun turn in “The Magic Crystal” to the genuinely great “No Retreat, No Surrender 2”, she’s managed to not exactly elevate her material; but to sort-of act at the same time as being one of the most talented screen martial artists ever.
“China O’Brien” would probably be no.1 if you did a “Family Fortunes” round on naming a Rothrock movie. I’ve never seen it before, but (aside from the 80s high school movie love) I was a bit of a snob in my youth, watching indie, arthouse and “serious” foreign movies; my friends, sensibly, enjoyed stuff like this. If you like, you can see ISCFC as me catching up on my teens, and hopefully recommending some fun stuff to you, but you don’t come here to read my dull life story!
China O’Brien is a cop as well as a martial arts teacher, and one day one of her students, a young angry black man, decides he’s had enough and tells her she wouldn’t last two minutes in a real fight on the street. She’s all “you know how I feel about violence” and then agrees to meet him in a back alley at 10pm? It turns out she thinks this is a demonstration, something the movie struggles to tell us, or perhaps they wanted to put us on the back foot from the beginning? Anyway, after realising she’s in a real fight she then, completely out of character, shoots someone emerging from the shadows. This is…a kid, maybe? (again, the movie isn’t interested in telling us)…and she’s forced to hand in her badge and gun. After very minimal soul searching, she’s off to Beaver Creek, Utah, the small town she grew up in to visit her Dad, the Sheriff.
So the movie is that classic “hero rides into town” story. But the villain in this, Sommers, manages to differentiate himself from other movie villains not by chewing scenery, but by having zero respect for the law from the very beginning. On a routine call to a lumber yard, Sommers’ people decide to ignore the Sheriff, then when he tries to arrest them go full-on to murder him and China, using chainsaws, guns and all sorts. Then, the Judge (who’s in Sommers’ pocket too) threatens to have the Sheriff charged with wrongful arrest! It’s hammered home that this is a very bad man, but when the Sheriff and his Deputy are blown up, that’s when I’d be calling in the FBI. They sort of mention they’re thinking of doing it, but that never happens.
China decides to stay in town and stand for election for her Dad’s old job, and luckily she’s got some help, in the form of her old high school boyfriend turned special forces soldier turned teacher Matt – the great Richard Norton, who co-starred with Rothrock in “The Magic Crystal”. Now, Norton is Australian and makes no attempt to hide his accent; it’s a toss-up which is odder between that and the final member of their little gang, “Dakota”, a Native American who’s played by Keith Cooke (who does not appear to be Native American at all), whose mother was forced into prostitution. So, it’s the three of them against Sommers and his goons – the townspeople, apart from the people who Sommers has in his pocket, are all firmly on China’s side.
It’s a riot of odd haircuts and magnificent clothing choices, as China rocks the Hammer pants regularly, and numerous townsfolk sport weird and wonderful variations on the mullet. It’s also a riot of acting styles, with Rothrock and Norton almost convincing you they’re human beings. No, I’m sorry, I was being mean – there’s one scene where Norton gives Rothrock a little peck and she performs “girlish glee” as well as I’ve ever seen it done. The rest of the cast are convincingly sleazy-looking local hoodlum types.
But you don’t see a Cynthia Rothrock movie for the acting. She’s an amazing martial artist, as is Norton, and they work at the absolute top of their abilities here. The camera is sped up a few times but they’re still incredibly precise, well-choreographed, demanding and real-looking stunts. I will also never get tired of seeing sexist rednecks looking surprised after “little girl” O’Brien absolutely whups their ass. The fight round the bonfire is a little masterpiece, and it’s almost worth the cost of admission on its own.
It’s a great movie. You know what you’re getting and the film does not disappoint. Okay, the lawlessness doesn’t ramp up throughout, starting at a “we are prepared to murder someone in a bar for no reason” level and staying there, but the extreme black and white allows you to sit back and enjoy, with no fear of double-crosses or twists or any of that. Just pure fun and ass-kicking excitement. It’s also a movie with two rather unusual bits of trivia attached to it, first of which is the director Robert Clouse, who’s best known to us as the director of “Enter The Dragon”. While this isn’t quite as good as that, it’s still got the pedigree of a director who knows how to film martial arts.
Second is a rather nondescript song which plays as China drives to her home town, performed by a band called “Tess Makes Good”. This is none other than Tori Amos, after her brief attempt at pop stardom with Y Kant Tori Read but before “Little Earthquakes” would make her an international superstar. This movie is the only way to hear this song, should you be an Amos completist, as the soundtrack was never released and she never put the song out herself. Anyway, here it is:
Rating: thumbs up