"China O'Brien" Movie Review
CHINA O'BRIEN (1988)
Directed by Robert Clouse
During the 1980s Action Movie Boom, fellas like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Seagal have ruled the multiplexes and video store shelves were filled with endless straight-to-VHS revenge sagas starring dozens of B and C-list wanna-be's (anyone remember Jeff Speakman? Michael Dudikoff? Don "The Dragon" Wilson? Reb Brown?). The heroes in such flicks were almost always muscle bound manly men toting a variety of automatic weapons, but tonight's feature presentation, 1988's China O'Brien, bucked that trend by casting a female in the lead. Cynthia Rothrock gained fame as a five-time World Karate champion earlier in the decade before the Hong Kong based movie studio Golden Harvest cast her in a number of their martial-arts action films. By 1988 she'd amassed enough of a "buzz" to headline flicks in her homeland. China O'Brien was Rothrock's second U.S. production following a co-headlining credit in 1986's No Retreat, No Surrender 2. Tough-as-nails warrior women are fairly commonplace in today's action flicks, of course, but in 1988 Rothrock was a unique presence on video-store action shelves.
Unfortunately, aside from its status as an early example of Girl Power in the action film genre, China O'Brien isn't much of a movie. Filmed on a shoestring budget in Utah, China O'Brien introduces Rothrock as a big hearted city police officer who also teaches martial arts to neighborhood youths in her free time. Late one night she gets jumped in an alleyway by some gang bangers and inadvertently kills one of them in self defense. Wracked with guilt, China turns in her badge and pistol (swearing "never to touch a gun again") and moves back to her Midwestern hometown, where her father (David Blackwell) serves as the sheriff. China quickly learns that things have changed - and not for the better - at the ol' homestead while she's been away. The town is now under the control of a gang of hooligans led by an odious Mafia type named Sommers (Stephen Kerby - imagine a low-rent version of Ben Gazzara's character in "Road House"), who's got the local judge and most of the politicians in his pocket. After a few run-ins with Sommers' goons, China's Dad and his lone honest deputy get car-bombed, leaving China to pick up the pieces. She decides to run for Sheriff to take her father's place, aided by her high school boyfriend (Australian martial artist Richard Norton) and a one-handed (?) motorcycle-riding tough named "Dakota" (Keith Cooke) who has his own reasons for wanting to get even with Sommers. Needless to say, the bad guys don't plan on letting China and her friends live to see Election Day, which leads to a constant series of borderline-comical martial-arts battles in a variety of locations (the local bar, China's campaign rally, a high school gym, etc., etc.). Fortunately for China, the bad guys always follow the ancient Martial Arts Movie Rule of attacking the hero or heroine one at a time rather than ganging up on her all at once. Do I really need to tell you who eventually wins? I didn't think so...
Summin' it up...
I'll give Rothrock credit, she can certainly bust a martial-arts move. Her athletic, occasionally gravity-defying fight scenes are really the only reason to see this film. You're certainly not going to want to tune in for the scripting, characterization, or acting, which is all but non-existent. The bad guys are generic goons straight from Central Casting, and the '80s fashions and hair-do's are an absolute scream. After a while it became tough to stifle laughter while watching the pixie-ish Rothrock, wearing outfits that look like she just came fromj a Debbie Gibson music video shoot, kicking ass on an endless parade of mulleted dudes wearing acid-washed jeans and denim jackets with their collars turned up. Adding to the hilarity is the fact that the film recycles the exact same sound effect ("THHHHWACK!") whenever a character hits someone with anything - a fist, a foot, a stick, or a conveniently placed inanimate object. By the time the movie is over, that sound effect has been repeated so many times that you'll probably continue to hear it in your sleep.
China O'Brien may not be a great movie, but I can't deny that it was fun to watch. Everything about this uber-low-budget production - the community-theater-level acting, the over-the-top fights, the wardrobes, even the cheesy synth-heavy soundtrack - brought back warm and fuzzy memories of the 1980s, when flicks like these were in regular rotation on late night cable. They really don't make quality schlock like this anymore! After China, Cynthia Rothrock went on to make more than two dozen direct-to-video action flicks (including the inevitable China O'Brien 2), earning her a devoted cult following and the title of "Queen of B-Movie Kung Fu." Long may she reign.
On a side note, China O'Brien director Robert Clouse holds the unique distinction of directing one of the best martial-arts action films in history (Bruce Lee's breakthrough Enter the Dragon) as well as one that's widely considered to be the worst (the legendary 1985 action turkey Gymkata, starring Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas). China O'Brien falls somewhere in the middle of the two. Those with a high tolerance for B-grade chop-socky fun will have a blast with it, while the average viewer will be reaching for the "stop" button well before it's over.
China O'Brien kickin' some redneck butt:
And Cynthia's STILL kickin' butt today!!
Cynthia Rothrock's action movie output has slowed down since her late 80s/early 90s heyday but she's still making fairly regular appearances in straight-to-video action flicks to this very day. Her highest profile recent role came in 2014's Mercenaries - a girl-power variant on the Expendables formula - in which she co-starred alongside such notable action heroines as Brigitte "Red Sonja" Nielsen, Kristianna "Terminator 3" Loken and Vivica "Independence Day" Fox. Could there be a China O'Brien III sometime in the near future? We can only hope! Till then, bargain bin action movie junkies can keep themselves occupied with Cynthia Rothrock's extensive back catalog. Happy hunting.
© 2011 Keith Abt