Martial Law (1990)

PLOT: When he discovers that his younger brother has been stealing cars for a local crime kingpin, a cop is forced to choose between his family and his badge. Though it goes unmentioned, we can assume option C includes fleeing to Canada to enjoy a lifetime of free health care and maple syrup.

Director: Steve Cohen
Writer: Richard Brandes
Cast: Chad McQueen, Cynthia Rothrock, David Carradine, Andy McCutcheon, Philip Tan, Vincent Craig Dupree, Tony Longo, John Fujioka, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, James Lew, Jeff Pruitt

I appreciate it when filmmakers go the extra yard to subvert genre conventions. The “reluctant partners” trope rears its head in 1990’s Martial Law, but director Steve Cohen has an ace up his sleeve. Not only are the partners at the center of this story willing to pair up professionally as police officers, but they’re also romantically involved and -- OH BY THE WAY -- martial artists. This comes from the widely held belief that the couples that stay together, play together, but also work with each other, and frequently bang each other. My feeling is that given the evolving cultural climate, it’s only a matter of time before we see a new genre of “more-than-buddies” cop movies. I’m all for future iterations of Riggs and Murtaugh living freely and openly.

Sean Thompson (McQueen) is a good cop. He makes a convincing pizza delivery man during hostage situations. He shakes down Chinatown gangsters with ease, and he can back-fist and sidekick with the best of them. But beneath that skill and toughness, there lies a palpable sadness. In the wake of his parents’ premature deaths, he has struggled to maintain a relationship with his younger brother, Michael (McCutcheon). It may have something to do with his complete inability to communicate, about which his girlfriend and fellow officer, Billie Blake (Rothrock), frequently complains. In any case, the raging teen has begun to go astray.

Michael now works for a crime lord named Rhodes (Carradine) who deals in expensive stolen cars, among other lucrative business pursuits. Of course, no gang is complete without hired muscle. Martial arts expert Wu Han (Tan) and lumbering oaf, Booker (Longo) flank Rhodes as his trusted advisers, and throw their weight around with aplomb. Michael’s skills as a carjacker are just fine and dandy, but as Rhodes points out, his burgeoning martial arts expertise cemented his made man status. This film will make you long for the cinematic underworld where employability is not dictated by one’s penchant for loyalty, ability to multitask, or skills in resource coordination, but instead by one’s skills in the dojo.

As Rhodes and his goons continue their violent and illegal business practices, from which dead bodies are just one biproduct, the cops take notice. With Michael caught between two roles -- a carjacker trying to make a good impression on his new boss, and the estranged brother of an emotionally distant cop -- tragedy seems a likely outcome. Can the elder Thompson bring his brother back from the dark side? What will Rhodes do if he discovers that his golden boy has a cop for a brother? Is it humanly possible to stage a nunchucks fight in an office with a drop ceiling?

It was only while conducting background research in conjunction with this review that I discovered that not only was McQueen trained by Chuck Norris, but he was a member of Johnny’s Cobra Kai homeboys in the original Karate Kid. Most of ya’ll are going, “YEAH NO KIDDING K-BREZ,” which is the new nickname I gave to myself just now. I would say this qualifies as another example of why my “martial arts b-movie reviewer on the Internet” card should be revoked but it’s not my fault. The minimum qualifications are really archaic: all you need is a 486 computer and the ability to tell the difference between Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Don Cheadle or Owen Wilson. In any case, on both the acting and fighting fronts, McQueen is pretty good, and I’m surprised he didn’t end up doing more films like this (he was replaced in the sequel by Jeff Wincott).

This was a cliched story with a few decent performances from Carradine, McQueen, and Vincent Craig Dupree as a paranoid gang member, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the fight scenes. Rothrock expectedly brings the thunder, but as an added bonus she gets a short fight with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in a Stateside collision of 1980s Hong Kong action gweilo icons! Tan is a great athlete and an eminently watchable martial artist, and Carradine is, well… Carradine is a good actor. The stunt performers sell everything, the strike combinations are swift and logical, and there’s enough cardboard boxes to go around for all of us to pack up and move to Delaware. (Not necessarily recommended).

Solid execution is the cackling arch-nemesis of low expectations, and I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised by the level of competency across the board. The performances were adequate for this type of film, the fights had good energy, and Cohen sidestepped a lot of the fatal flaws that often dog this subgenre. Sure, I could have used a bit more fighting with better sound effects. Maybe the secondary characters could have been more distinctive. More Rothrock would have been great (but when is that not the case?) Rather than downgrade Martial Law for quantities, however, I’ll give it credit for what’s on screen: a highly serviceable crime kickfighter.

There are definitely all region PAL discs floating around, but your best bet might be a used VHS copy.

4 / 7
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