Competence in 80s and 90s martial arts cinema is by no means a given (witness the work of Ron Marchini if you’d like an example) so it’s nice to see one where everyone involved knows what they’re doing. Robert Clouse, director of “Enter The Dragon” and the first “China O’Brien”, has the good sense to keep the first movie’s stars – Cynthia Rothrock as Sheriff China; Richard Norton as teacher / former special forces guy Matt; and Keith Cooke as one-handed Native American badass Dakota – and let them do what they do best.
After the bombshell of finding out that China’s real name is Lori (thanks to a plaque she’s awarded at the beginning) we get cracking with the plot, which is only tangentially related to any of our heroes. One of the locals is in the FBI’s witness protection programme after ratting out criminal Charlie Baskin, but he also stole $5 million from him, unbeknownst to his family. Charlie busts out of jail and goes on a revenge spree against the people who put him behind bars, including, best of all, getting the judge as he’s on stage at a magic show. Was he just really confident or had no-one warned him a killer with a grudge against him was on the loose? Anyway, the baddies need the money to do a big drug deal and thanks to a mole inside the FBI, know where it is.
So China and her crew protect the family while hunting down Baskin and his seemingly limitless army of goons (seriously, that 5 million isn’t going to be much when you’ve divided it a hundred ways) and the story progresses as these stories do, with minor characters getting picked off and so on. Not a single one of the villains is any good at fighting, though, which means China and the boys go through them like a warm knife through butter.
When this movie really picks up is in the last 20 minutes. Up to then has been okay, if a little slow, but it’s as if they all suddenly go “crap! We’ve got all these cool ideas for fights and stunts but we’ve already done the first hour! Let’s just cram it all in!” Basically, everything after the extremely odd one-camera scene – where all the main heroes are having a conversation in one shot, as if their second camera broke so they had to cram everyone into one corner of one room to film them – is a masterpiece of martial arts cinema.
You’ve got Richard Norton in an immaculate white t-shirt / double denim combo, not a bit of dirt or blood on him after all the fighting; China kicking someone clean through a wall (like they had a wire-fu special effects guy, but only for a day’s filming); someone getting a piano dropped on them; one goon hiding inside a toilet; China killing someone with a bow, after evidently forgetting she put down her gun for ever because she didn’t want to kill anyone else; and, perhaps best of all, KNIFE HAND GUY! He just shows up out of nowhere, has a cool fight with China and that’s it. He’s so awesome he makes it to the poster above, despite only being in the movie for maybe 45 seconds.
There’s a couple of smaller performances that according to IMDB were the result of them realising the film was too short and having to go back months later for reshoots. Billy Blanks, taebo master, star of such gems as “No Retreat, No Surrender 4” and “TC2000” and perhaps the worst actor I’ve ever seen in my life, shows up in an uncredited role as “Zebra Print Zubaz Pants Guy” and gets his ass kicked swiftly – I’d like to think he was just hanging out on the set, visiting his martial arts buddies, and the director paid him a few hundred dollars to get beat up on camera. The other oddity is Baskin has a girlfriend at the beginning who’s obviously a bodybuilder, and it seemed a no-brainer that she’d be fighting China at some point. Unfortunately, she just disappears from the movie after a few scenes, wasted opportunity and all that.
It’s not what you’d call a great film, or even a very good one. The first hour is too slow and while I love Rothrock and Norton, neither of them are great actors so it can be a bit of a slog to get through their scenes. But what it does have is that super-entertaining final act. Norton wears a Canadian tuxedo to a funeral, it doesn’t so much have an ending so much as “this line’ll do as a last one, cut”…it’s got it all.
Rating: thumbs up