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China O'Brien
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CHINA O'BRIEN (1990)

Starring: Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, Keith Cooke, David Blackwell, Steven Kerby, Doug Wright

Written By: Robert Clouse, Sandra Weintraub (story) Directed By: Robert Clouse

The Short Version

Cynthia Rothrock gives a low budget martial arts clinic.

What if the guy who directed Enter the Dragon directed Walking Tall?  Here ya go.

The fights are fun to watch; do you care about the plot?

Seriously; don’t think too hard here, especially about the bad guy.

Just sit back and have fun with China O’Brien.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MONTEREY JACK.

Tasty cheese, plain and simple.


Pairs Well With...

MGD.

Smooth, light, easy drinking beer that’s simple to settle in with, kinda like this movie.  Just don’t break the bottle and wave it as a weapon like the redneck here does.

“Shit!  You see that?  She’s one of them chop suey fighters!”


Once upon a time, an American named Cynthia Rothrock caused some jaws to drop in world of martial arts.  From 1981-1985, she reigned undefeated as the World Karate Champion in both Forms and Weapons.  Then fate came along and tapped her on the shoulder with an offer to work in movies, and so she went where her particular skills would be most appreciated: Hong Kong.

Come 1990, American martial arts fans who wanted to see Rothrock headline a film (she had a supporting role in No Retreat, No Surrender 2 in 1988) finally got their opportunity to do so without having to visit the import section of the store.  That headline showcase came in the form of China O’Brien.

Our story starts in the big city.  China O’Brien (Cynthia Rothrock, check out our interview) is a cop who teaches a martial arts class on the side.  That’s where we meet up with her as the credits roll, putting her students through their paces.  However, there’s one student nicknamed Termite (Doug Wright) who questions the real value of her lessons on the street.  In order to prove the value of what she’s teaching, Termite challenges her to take on five street fighters in a back alley later that night.  She accepts the challenge.

O’Brien shows up at the appointed time, and sure enough, men start attacking her in the alley.  However, it turns out that Termite got waylaid before he could organize his gang: these punks are for real!  O’Brien still manages to take them all out, and looks to have won when Termite finally arrives to see if she’s okay.  Unfortunately, Termite, who has gang trouble, has been followed, and his pursuer pulls a gun on him.  Officer O’Brien is too far away to kick Termite to safety before his assailant can pull the trigger.  She has no choice: she pulls her own gun and shoots the guy dead.  When she sees that the gunman was just “a kid”, she’s devastated, and despite the fact that the department considers the shooting justified, she turns in her gun and resigns from the force.

Hoping to clear her head, O’Brien decides to take a breather in the small town where she grew up, and where her father (David Blackwell) holds the post of sheriff.  Unfortunately, her relaxation is soon cut short.  It turns out that the town has gone corrupt while she’s been away, and her father is fighting an uphill battle that he just might not be able to win…

Most of the poster and promotional art for China O’Brien makes a very loud point of noting that writer/director Robert Clouse was also the director of the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon, which is the generally acclaimed gold standard of martial arts film excellence.  What no one seems to point out is the fact that Clouse also directed Gymkata, which is the generally acclaimed mushy brown standard of martial arts film crap, and that was his most recent film before this one.

Good news, folks.  Better star in the form of Cynthia Rothrock = much better movie.

Clouse’s directorial style can be summed up simply.  Make sure the actors get the mechanics of the plot-oriented scenes right and read their lines correctly, but put all of the real effort into the stuff you know the audience is actually paying to see: the martial arts sequences.  At the point, showcase the hell out of the fighters, and the movie will be as good as they are.  One has to admit that the formula’s got merit.  It certainly works here.

China O’Brien is not a movie of duels, but rather one of brawls and mini-brawls.  Each brawl is different, and all of them are fun.  The first one starts off fairly lightly: it’s the one mentioned above in the alley, where China starts off thinking that she’s facing her errant student’s buddies to prove a point.  The real point of this sequence, of course, is to introduce Cynthia Rothrock as a legitimate fighter, and it’s very cleverly done.  As the initial wave of opponents comes at her one person at a time, she dispatches each man easily with a different maneuver, but, thinking that she’s her to instruct a lesson, stops short of fully injuring any of them.  As she takes out each man, she calls out the name of the technique she’s using and the effect it would have if she just put a wee bit more pressure into her attacks.  It’s funny because the audience already knows that this is for real and she doesn’t; it’s effective because it is clearly demonstrated at a speed that anyone can keep up with (never a guarantee in a good martial arts film) that Rothrock knows her stuff.  After several fighters’ worth of clinic, the cat comes out of the bag, and then the action speeds up and hits the pace audiences can expect for the rest of the movie.  Overall, it’s a clever and well-crafted intro.

One mini-brawl and four more full-on brawls happen before it’s all said and done, and as we go, Rothrock gets more friends to help, including Richard Norton and Keith Cooke.  [Cooke broke his hand just before filming, so something was quickly written in that allowed his character to be functionally one-handed, and it works.]  What’s especially cool about these multi-hero fights is that each of the fighters employs a different overall style, so it’s not a matter of watching the same three moves being executed over and over again by different people.  Instead, the audience gets to enjoy a variety of techniques being put on display, allowing viewers to either pick a favorite or just enjoy the smorgasbord.  There are plenty of highlights to choose from, whether it’s watching Norton playing arm lock bingo during the rally fight or seeing how Rothrock takes on a guy with a chainsaw at a lumber mill.  (Personally, I liked the stage microphone sequence, wherein Rothrock not only employs the mike as a staff, but also while she is fighting takes advantage of the fact that there’s a cord attached, allowing her to systematically tie up her unwitting opponent while beating him senseless.)  Whatever you like in a fight (unless it’s blood; you won’t see that here), you’ll probably get at least one peek at it in this movie sometime.

I admit that I could have done without the occasional slow motion shots, but I recognize them as a standard genre conceit, and they’re by no means overused.  (Indeed, the only scene where it feels like too much isn’t even a fight.)  The other conceit of enhancing the sound effects of every hit I can deal with; that actually makes the fights more fun.  (Even the silly bowling pin sound effect when a group gets knocked over by a kick works.  It wouldn’t in a movie that takes itself more seriously and doesn’t have the sense of fun that China O’Brien has, but here, it’s okay.)

As noted earlier, these martial arts brawls are what most audiences are paying to see from China O’Brien, and on that score, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.  Pick it up and have a blast.

As for the rest of the story, it’s as predictable as they come, especially if you’re already familiar with Walking Tall, from which the plot is very obviously lifted.  It’s serviceable enough (and certainly better than you can usually expect from one of these flicks at this budget), and the leads – especially Cynthia Rothrock, whose personality is infectiously friendly when she’s not busy kicking asses into the brickwork – are likable enough to carry it through as it ambles along at a semi-leisurely pace that doesn’t feel too slow thanks to the payoff brawls.  The primary complaint here is that China O’Brien lacks a really strong villain; he’s just a rich old fart who has redneck bullyboys do his dirty work for him and who doesn’t even pretend to be able to go toe to toe with a martial arts fighter.  This doesn’t kill the movie by any means, but it does stand as the one major hit against it.

Bottom line, China O’Brien is just too much fun to dislike, and for martial arts fans, picking it up is a no-brainer.  The fights are well shot, well executed, and entertaining to watch, and Cynthia Rothrock is no slouch playing the lead.  Don’t let the end-of-80s fashion sense of this movie fool you; she’ll knock the bad guys to the ground and smile while doing it.  If that isn’t entertainment, what is?

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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