Sworn to Justice (1996)

PLOT: After her sister and nephew are murdered during a break-in at her home,  a psychologist must pick up the shattered fragments of her life. Will she be doomed to step on tiny shards she may have missed during the clean-up? (It’s tough to find them all with high pile carpeting).

Director: Paul Maslak
Writers: Robert Easter, Paul Maslak, Neva Friedenn
Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Kurt McKinney, Tony Lo Bianco, Kenn Scott, Katie Mitchell, Mako, Brad Dourif, Max Thayer, Vince Murdocco, Eric Lee, Art Camacho, Ian Jacklin


Beginning in 1985, Cynthia Rothrock appeared in seven Hong Kong action films over four years, smack dab in the middle of the territory’s cinematic golden age. They didn’t all reach the cinematic high of Yes, Madam! but this run of films was instrumental in making her a star. She parlayed this status into steady paychecks and softer landings in an American film industry that was less mindful of the level of effort that went into action choreography, and much easier on the bodies of its performers. She worked steadily in the U.S. after her time abroad -- starring in five films in 1990 alone, and ten films between 1992 and 1994 -- but by the mid 1990s that pace had slowed considerably. In spite of this, Rothrock used Paul Maslak’s 1996 debut film, Sworn to Justice to effectively point down at her hypothetical diamond-encrusted name plate necklace (“ACTION SUPERSTAR”) to remind all of us that she still ran the game.

Janna (Rothrock) comes home during a home invasion to find her nephew murdered and her sister succumbing to fatal injuries. She escapes a similar fate from the same violent burglars but incurs trauma to her head during a daring escape. The upside? By touching any object, she now has the psychic ability of psychometry, which allows her to “see” the recent past of anyone else who has touched it previously. This might come in handy with her day job as a psychologist at Forensitec, where she works as an expert witness for criminal defense lawyers, but it’s tough to focus on work with hunky new copyright lawyer and publisher, Nicholas (McKinney) strutting around the office. Her boss, Lorraine (Mitchell) think she’s coming back to work too early after the tragedy, but Janna needs a healthy distraction from the sputtering investigation led by Detective Briggs (Lo Bianco), still ongoing at her home.

Idle hands hands do the devil’s work, and Janna can’t help from using her newfound abilities to solve the crime for herself. What starts off as some harmless snooping soon turns into her dispensing vigilante justice on a nightly basis to the city’s criminals. All the while, a major court case looms and she’s beginning to fall in love with Nicholas. Will the local crime kingpin, Eugene (Scott) squash her efforts before she can find the men responsible for her family members’ deaths? In a world full of shadows, who can she really trust? And how can she really be falling for a guy who wears tighty whities?

This film has it all: action, melodrama, martial-arts-sparring-as-foreplay, and a terrific cast. I’m a sucker for a star-studded ensemble, but very few films in our wheelhouse ever approach the dense clustering of b-movie action stars that Sworn to Justice manages. Ian Jacklin, a guy who has starred in his own films and appeared in countless others, shows up for a cameo where he spouts three lines and gets thrown through an office window! Max Thayer, the Han Solo of No Retreat, No Surrender 2, shows up in an arrowhead bolo tie and slick hair for a quick cigarette and some hearty laughs at an office party! Art Camacho robs an armored truck, Vince Murdocco is a meathead gang member, and Mako gets three scenes as a blind guy who runs a newstand in a lobby. This is Cynthia Rothrock’s constellation of friends, and they’ll happily put in a day’s work and get paid in meatball subs.

This film does a fair amount of thematic shape-shifting over the course of its 90 minutes -- psychological thriller, court-room drama, romantic romp -- but it’s an action film at heart, so let’s start there. The opening is a damn barn-burner! Janna fights the home invaders tooth-and-nail, throwing one guy through a glass table and smashing another guy’s head through a vase. As another aggressor unleashes a barrage of gunshots, she runs *through* a glass door to her balcony, and continues to outrun the gunfire. When she reaches the railing, she throws herself off to evade the thieves and falls about two or three stories through the branches and foliage of a tree before landing on the manicured lawn below. Considering the variety and intensity of the action in the opening, it’s a little puzzling how the rest of these scenes took shape.

Both Eric Lee and Tak Yuen (Douglas Kung in the credits) were credited as fight choreographers on this set, with Art Camacho acting as second unit director. I won’t use the differences in the fight scene quality to criticize any of the personnel, but they are worth pointing out. One scene in the storage room of a convenience store has Janna fighting off some would-be robbers with a lethal combination duct tape, cardboard, and slapstick, complete with cartoon sound effects. Oh, and Latin instrumental pop music!

A fight scene later in the film features Janna fighting off Eugene’s gang in his chop shop. One sequence has her fighting an attacker on the roof of the car before the action spills to the floor and leads to a fast exchange of blocking-and-punching techniques (i.e., the closest the film gets to Hong Kong style fight choreography). The fighter then tries to electrocute Janna with car battery cables before being downed for good. What’s my point with all these details? They demonstrate major differences in the underlying tones of each fight scene -- one comedic and clumsy, one gritty and technical -- and different approaches to how the action flows from shot to shot. For some that’s a draw, for others it’s a hurdle.

This might be the best acting we’ve ever seen from Rothrock, and from a dramatic perspective, Maslak makes sure she runs the gauntlet: there are crying scenes, flirty scenes, fighting scenes, love scenes, and intense scenes in which she has to hold her own alongside seasoned actors like Dourif and Lo Bianco. Her and McKinney have a genuine chemistry and it was surprisingly enjoyable to watch that relationship play out. Now, I’m no James Lipton and this ol’ blog is chewed gum on the underside of the table where they film Inside the Actors’ Studio, but I was really impressed by the completeness of her performance. In the past, most directors for her American films had a tendency to leave her out to dry with awkward dialogue and unearned emotion; that’s (mostly) not the case here. Maslak’s direction is good, and Rothrock is great as a result.

The only thing that may have surprised me more than Rothrock’s solid acting was Kenn Scott’s turn as a dickish villain. As an actor of somewhat short stature and relaxed demeanor, he was convincing as a bullying victim who learns to defend himself in 1994’s Showdown. He even played a Ninja Turtle (not here, I hope). Everything about what we know about Scott as an on-screen performer screams wholesome. But between his snarky insults, brutal methods of intimidation, and a blazer at least two sizes too big for him, he manages to make Eugene the sort of jerk we love to hate. (To that end, his hoop earrings and stubbly beard evoke roughly one-fifth of all late-‘90s boy-band members).


Even though Sworn to Justice is a later Cynthia Rothrock film, and the fight scene quality is all over the place like your grandma after three mint juleps, and it wasn’t filmed by Godfrey Ho in the state of Maryland, I dug this film on balance. Between the great cast of familiar faces, the solid action, a wacky story, and a pace that keeps you engaged, this film offers plenty of positives for Rothrock fans and fight film aficionados alike. Recommended.


Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. DVD on Amazon, Netflix, or eBay.

4.5 / 7

1 comment:

  1. This one threw me off the first time I watched it. Didn't expect so much emotional acting from Rothrock; before this film, all I had to go on as far as acting range was her morgue breakdown in UNDEFEATABLE.

    I really liked the film; the seemingly higher production value and more competent cinematography (at least compared to her work with Godfrey Ho and the stuff shot in the Philippines and Jakarta), plus the casting of guys like Dourif, made me feel like I was watching a stepping stone film to bigger things for Rothrock -- which sadly never came. She really deserved bigger and better. I remember listening to an interview with David Worth (LADY DRAGON) where he said that back in the late 90s she was in talks to do a movie with Sylvester Stallone, directed by William Friedkin, but that fell apart unfortunately. Anyway, good write-up as always, good sir!


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