by Patrick Bromley
Despite her presence on the #HeavyAction Mount Rushmore, I have seen very few Cynthia Rothrock movies. I didn't grow up on work, I don't remember her films being shown on cable much, and even the titles aren't burned into my brain the way some action stars' catalogues are. The only film of hers I recognize sight unseen is 1988's China O'Brien, which was released direct to video in 1990. Why I'm familiar with this title and not her others probably has something to do with it being the film for which she is best known and something to do with it being on the Viewer's Choice trailer reel I watched obsessively in 1989 (the same trailer reel that introduced me to the likes of Puppet Master, The Toxic Avenger Part II, and Gnaw: Food of the Gods II). Despite getting on my radar at such a young age, it took me 30 years to finally see China O'Brien. The movie is just ok, but Rothrock is awesome.
She plays Lori "China" O'Brien, a police officer who also teaches martial arts. When a student challenges her to a demonstration with some real gang members, things go south and someone gets killed. China turns in her badge and leaves the force, moving back home to Beaver Creek, Utah, the small town where her father is the sheriff. Despite his best efforts to maintain order, the town is being taken over by criminals who answer to local boss Edwin Sommers (Steven Kerby). After her father is killed, O'Brien teams up with her former boyfriend Matt (Richard Norton) and Native American biker Dakota (Keith Cooke) to get elected sheriff and clean up Beaver Creek for good.
ire Down Below. Patrick Swayze did in Road House. Cynthia Rothrock does it in China O'Brien. It's an interesting choice for her North American debut, one that I suspect was calculated on the part of producers Fred and Sandra Weintraub and writer/director Robert Clouse. There's something distinctly American about the "Gone Country" plot the movie uses, as it borrows directly from the classic tropes and archetypes of the Western. The whole East-meets-West conceit runs through all of China O'Brien, right down to the movie's title.
Truthfully, I wish Rothrock were more prominently on display in the movie. She gets to do a lot of fighting, which is good, and the fact that I was occasionally unsure as to whether or not the film had been sped up during her fight sequences is a testament to her quickness and skill in combat. But she's saddled with not one but two sidekicks, Richard Norton and Keith Cooke, both of whom get what feels like equal screen time during the fight scenes (and in some cases more). Supposedly, this was a move by producers to hedge their bets, unsure as they were about having a fully female-fronted action film. Giving China an ex-boyfriend was meant to make her seem more "feminine" and less "threatening," which is about the most goddamn depressing thing you'll read today.
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