Director: Robert Clouse
Writers: Robert Clouse, Sandra Weintraub
Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, Keith Cooke, David Blackwell, Patrick Adamson, Steven Kerby
Humid Southeast Asian jungles. Maximum security prisons. Sparsely populated rural American towns. What do all these things have in common besides a lack of wi-fi hotspots? They’re all popular locations for action films. Unlike the more exotic settings, the small town is often perceived as warm, friendly, and familiar. It is positioned as a place to which those from the same humble beginnings can return to rest their heads after long tours of globetrotting, war, or big city prosperity. Of these small-town action flicks, too few have had female martial-artists in the lead role. Cynthia Rothrock, titular star of Robert Clouse’s 1990 film China O’Brien, kicks that disparity right in the throat.
O’Brien is a martial arts instructor and tough-as-nails cop in an unnamed big city. She strikes fast, kicks hard, and shoots straight. Unfortunately, the latter of those is what lands her in trouble; during an off-duty altercation she shoots an armed assailant who happens to be a minor. Wracked with guilt, she resigns from her post, vows to never again use a firearm, and heads back to her quiet hometown to escape the city’s hectic pace and its alternating odors of urine, garbage, and fresh-baked pizza.
The first stop on her return home is the local police department, where her father serves and protects as town sheriff. She instead finds his second-in-command, Deputy Lickner (Adamson). While he possesses none of the same charm or dramatic chops, Adamson undoubtedly attended the Joe Spinell School of Bad Skin and Wispy Facial Hair. In addition to his kindly nature, he sports a sweaty mullet and some equally unkempt sideburns. But if cinematic history has taught us anything, it’s to never trust a supporting character with a moustache.
While continuing her search, O’Brien comes across old friend and flame Matt Conroy, played by frequent Rothrock collaborator Richard Norton. It’s unclear as to how this Australian martial artist joined the U.S. Special Forces only to end up in Hicksville, U.S.A. as a high school teacher jogging with his students, but the important thing to remember is -- HOLY SHIT LOOK AT NORTON’S STUBBLE. Serious Don Johnson action going on there.
O’Brien’s next stop is the local watering hole, the Beaver Creek Inn. Owned by a local businessman by the name of Sommers, it’s a good place to grab a drink and solicit a prostitute before getting in the inevitable bar brawl. Unfortunately for O’Brien, small-minded rural intolerance rears its ugly head as a former classmate (i.e. hooker) finds her use of multisyllabic words to be insulting, and the bartender derides her “chop suey” fighting when the tension boils over into violence. Over dinner that night, she finds out from her father that the Inn and many other parts of town have been rotted to the core as the result of Sommers’ influence.
During the bar scrum, we’re introduced to a mysterious drifter named Dakota (Cooke). An avid dirtbiker and arcade game enthusiast, he also wields what looks like a medieval hand vice designed to prevent masturbation. How he’s able to play Asteroids with it is a total mystery. We learn in time that it’s actually a permanent fixture of his hand after being irreparably mangled years ago by Sommers’ goons. (IMDB SEZ: Cooke’s hand was legitimately broken before China O’Brien started filming and was written into the story.) Throughout the rest of the film, Dakota trails China and proves righteous by helping her during moments of danger.
That danger comes in the form of the Sommers Gang of Evil Hick All-Stars. Apart from his legitimate business dealings, Sommers is involved in judge-buying, cop-corrupting, meth-making, hooker-torturing, and many other hyphenated criminal activities. Worse yet, after unceremoniously forcing Sheriff O’Brien out of his job, Sommers is chomping at the bit to install one of his cronies as the new head lawman. China and friends refuse to allow that to happen and she announces her intent to run for her dad’s old position.
The back-half of the film resembles 1972’s The Candidate if Cynthia Rothrock were cast instead of Robert Redford, and had more choreographed violence and car bombings and less thoughtful commentary on American politics in the age of television. China O’Brien demonstrates that elections are not won or lost because of canvassing, parades, and populist ideology but rather on voter trust, hard work, and turning every campaign rally into a full-contact martial arts demonstration.
Despite the obviously low budget, veteran martial-arts director Robert Clouse does a fair job of filming the action and giving the fight choreography room to breathe; cuts are in the flow and he uses a good mix of shots to blend movement together. While the villainous stuntmen in the film offer little resistance and even less martial-arts prowess, their collective timing is good and their falls are convincing, thereby making the heroes of the film look sufficiently bad-ass. There’s something oddly satisfying in watching Rothrock beat the shit out of obnoxious drunks and crooked rednecks, and Norton and Cooke are as great a supporting cast as you could get for an action movie at this time. Norton utilizes some brutal arm-based takedowns and even mixes in a few pro wrestling moves (ex. cross-body block, dropkick) while Cooke gets to show off his athleticism and kicking prowess, broken hand and all.
Perhaps lost in the excellent fisticuffs is the film’s rather subversive subtext. I’d argue that China O’Brien is a cinematic treatise on the dangers of firearms; inciting incident aside, none of the heroes fires a weapon in vanquishing their well-armed adversaries and O’Brien explicitly mentions more than once that she’ll never pick up a gun again. The film isn’t overly preachy on this point, but it does allow Rothrock and company to focus on the strengths and virtues of their respective martial-arts crafts instead of trying to match the firepower of the opposite side.
If I theoretically told you that a film was filled with drinking, politics, fighting, and car bombs, you’d likely assume it was about the Irish Republican Army. Fortunately, China O’Brien is all of those elements and a bit more and is really just a fun romp of an action movie. You can tell that Rothrock, Norton, and Cooke are enjoying the material and Clouse directs with a steady hand in making a tidy and well-paced cult actioner. Of her American films, this is almost definitely Rothrock’s best as the lead performer.
Flailing in dreaded Save limbo on Netflix and will cost you a pretty penny on Amazon if purchased new. Your best route is to buy used, buy VHS, or the *cough* YouTube clips *cough*.