Monday, April 13, 2020

Heavy Action: CHINA O'BRIEN

by Patrick Bromley
At long last, Cynthia Rothrock comes to Heavy Action!

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.
A seven-time black belt and five-time World Champion in martial arts, Rothrock is one of (if not the) most accomplished fighter ever to make the transition to action movie stardom. Like several other of her contemporaries who came of age around the same time -- Jeff Speakman, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme -- Rothrock used the skills honed over a lifetime of competitive martial arts as her ticket to big screen success. Whereas some of the action icons the preceded her either fell into their status (Charles Bronson) or cultivated genre success as a physical specimen (Schwarzenegger, Stallone), Rothrock comes from the Bruce Lee school, where the appeal of seeing her on screen is that she's actually doing the fighting. She was a movie star in Hong Kong before coming to American to make films (including the awesome-looking Yes, Madam, co-starring Michelle Yeoh and currently sitting in our Apple TV library), positioning China O'Brien as something of her North American coming out party.

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.
There is a subgenre of action movies that Adam Riske affectionately refers to as the "Gone Country" genre, in which action heroes typically associated with the big city are transplanted to rural environments for smaller stories that usually involve a corrupt figure taking over a town. Van Damme did "Gone Country" in Nowhere to Run. Seagal did it in Fire 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.
I don't think China O'Brien turned me into a Cynthia Rothrock fan. I think Cynthia Rothrock did that. She's as fun to watch fight as to watch Gene Kelly dance. I wish the movie did a slightly better job at showcasing her talents, but maybe I'll find that in one of her many movies I still have left to discover (I think I've only ever seen one other Rothrock vehicle, and there's no way I'll remember the title of it or be able to tell it apart from any of her other movies -- this is the special charm of action movie titles). The Western structure gives the movie a good narrative spine and the revenge angle gives it strong emotional stakes, but the main villain is pretty weak (literally) and the movie tries to service too many protagonists when it should really just be focusing on China. I'm guessing it won't be long before I get to the sequel, China O'Brien 2, released just one year later and included as the second feature on the DVD I own. I'm guessing it's just more of the same, but that doesn't sound so bad.

Got a movie you'd like to see covered in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. Patrick you need to see Undefeatable. It's far from Rockroth's best but it's.... well... something. I don't want to ruin it but the end fight has been floating around pn youtube for years as one of the cheesiest, goofiest, most ridiculous fight scenes of all time.

    1. OMG I just watched that fight scene. It. Is. Something. Now I need to see that whole movie.

  2. I've never seen a Rothrock joint, but I definitely want to! Thanks for these Heavy Action articles, Patrick--I'm adding a lot to my "watch during my mandatory furlough week" queue.

  3. I remember Rothrock movies being on HBO constantly around '90-'91. I always liked her, but could never fully love any of the movies.