Looking back at the China O’Brien films

Cynthia Rothrock took centre stage in the China O'Brien films. Here's our salute to them...

In 1989, Cynthia Rothrock was relatively unknown to action fans in the west. She’d spent the first half of the decade mastering martial arts, earning five black belts in a variety of styles before retiring undefeated from professional fighting in 1985. While teaching karate, Rothrock decided to try her hand at making movies and went to Hong Kong where the market for caucasian actors with fighting skills was booming. Her only acting experience had been in an old KFC commercial (available on YouTube if you fancy a laugh) but she landed a role as Michelle Yeoh’s partner in Corey Yuen’s influential police romp Yes Madam!

‘Inspector Cindy’ was an instant hit with eastern audiences. Her diminutive stature (5’3″) and cutesy voice hid a deadly fighting style to rival any of her male counterparts made her a unique screen presence and she was quick to capitalise on this. In the space of three years, she worked with most of the big names of the era and starred in a dozen HK hits from the campier end of the spectrum (Gordon Liu’s City Cops and Wong Jing’s Magic Crystal) to seminal Corey Yuen hits like Above The Law and Raging Thunder. These were big movies and, as the decade reached its end, legendary producer Raymond Chow decided it was time to break Cynthia out to the west as a lead actress.

Chow’s company, Golden Harvest, already had a long and fruitful history of east/west crossovers and the proposed Rothrock vehicle – christened China O’Brien (a cunning east/west pun of a name in itself) – reuinted previous collaborators from Enter The Dragon. Producer Fred Weintraub was brought on; his daughter Sandra conceptualised the story; and they hired Robert Clouse to write the screenplay and direct. Although not all of Clouse’s films had hit huge like Enter The Dragon, he’d remained a reliable action director who could work fast and to a budget while still delivering the goods.

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The story for China O’Brien was conceived when the Weintraubs read an article about Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff who single-handedly took on the Dixie Mafia in an atttempt to ‘clean up’ his county. Pusser was also the inspiration for the 1972 movie Walking Tall but the Weintraubs figured it would be a cool and interesting twist if they gender-swapped things. They were right.

Their movie starts with China as a tough urban cop with mad karate skills, who shoots a teenager about to kill her friend in a nasty alleyway brawl. Even though the department claims it’s justified, China is devastated. She never meant to kill anyone and, unable to face a return to duty, hands in her badge and heads south for a quiet life in her ramshackle hometown, Beaver Creek. She moves in with her dad, the local Sheriff, and rekindles a friendship with her high school sweetheart Matt (Aussie cutie-pie Richard Norton, a veteran of several HK Rothrock films). It all seems idyllic, yet something’s not right. The local bar is overrun with violence and vice. The county judge lets criminals walk. The timber trade is being blackmailed and, at the heart of it all, lies a super-shady businessman called Sommers.

China’s dad tries to bring Sommers to justice but – in a scene that comes as a genuine shock – gets murdered by a car bomb for his troubles. Wracked with grief, China is torn between what she wants (the quiet life) and what she knows she has to do (become the new Sheriff and kick bad-guy ass). This isn’t a romantic drama so obviously she picks the latter and action ensues. The plot plays almost like a classic western, even down to the presence of a mysterious Native American called Dakota (Keith Cooke) who lurks in the shadows with (initially) unclear allegiences. Unexpectedly, this downhomey cowgirl approach is actually one of the best things about China O’Brien. Even though the fighting is largely Chinese or Japanese in style, it’s an all-American martial arts picture and plays to this cultural heritage.

Speaking of the fighting, it really is excellent. Co-ordinated and choreographed by the underrated Nijel Binns, it combines technical excellence with a flamboyant visual effect and allows the three main performers to show off what makes each of them so great. Norton’s style is rough and handsy, utilising his upper body strength and street toughness, which compliments Cooke’s more graceful, acrobatic fighting (some of his kicks here seem to defy physics) and Rothrock’s ultra-fast, multi-style brutality. This triple-pronged attack keeps the action fresh, varied and exciting throughout the whole film (and it’s no slouch on the fights:dialogue ratio either).

With all this going for it, Golden Harvest were so confident of China O’Brien‘s success that they had Clouse shoot a sequel immediately afterwards (before the first film had even been released) and – although a different screenwriting team adapted Sandy Weintraub’s outline this time – there’s very little drop in quality.

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Set two years after the original, China has now settled into her role as Sheriff, with Matt and Dakota acting as her deputies. She’s employed a sassy female desk seargent called Lucille (Cindy Clark, a Melissa McCarthy lookalike who – many years later – would play a ‘Melissa McCarthy lookalike’ in a Jay Leno sketch) and, between them, they’ve pretty much wiped out crime in Beaver Creek.

Unfortunately, a series of shootings lift the lid on a smuggling/extortion/blackmail plot with a Beaver Creek resident at its heart, so – to protect her townsfolk – China must go head-to-head against new arch-baddie Baskin (Harlow Marks). To be honest, the crime element of the sequel is probably the weakest link, although the fighting remains top class. In addition to the same calibre of scrap we got the first time round, here Robert Clouse throws in echoes of the nuttiness he gave us in his gonzoid cult fave Gymkata. We get a dude with metal Freddy claws, some incredible fighting chefs (who chop in unison) and even a whip-wielding Indiana Jones clone, all getting in on the action. Oh, and bonus Billy Blanks.

Yet, even with this high-level bash for my buck, I found the best part of both China O’Brien films was (surprisingly, for the genre) the characterisation. I absolutely fell in love with China, Matt and Dakota and think it’s a genuine shame we never got a full TV series (or some books) about them. All three characters come fully formed and the chemistry between them feels warm, funny and real. Rothrock and Norton are renowned for their fighting skills rather than their acting ability yet they manage some genuine poignancy in China O’Brien II, especially in the scene where China explains how tough it is sometimes to be strong and Matt comforts her. It’s intimate and sweet and quite unlike what you normally get from martial arts heroes.

A lot of the secondary characters are fun too, from sassy Lucille to the background hicks like Chester the town drunk. At times, the window into Beaver Creek’s southern-fried life felt like it had the same rural charm as Northern Exposure, albeit at the opposite end of the country (Southern Exposure?). There were enough stories in here to keep going and going and yet, sadly, Golden Harvest stopped on just the two. The films did well (the first one sold 20,000 units in its first month, which is no mean feat for a low-budget film with no name stars) but perhaps the expectations were even higher. In a 1993 documentary, Fred Weintraub said that, when making China O’Brien, he felt the world was “ready for a female action hero” to compete with the likes of Stallone but, sadly, even in 2016 audiences still don’t quite seem to be.

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Which leads to another interesting aspect of the China O’Brien franchise. It ticks a fair few feminism boxes beyond just the default of having a ‘strong female lead’. China isn’t a robotic asskicking machine, she’s a character with thoughts and feelings, strengths and weaknesses. She’s also sexy while never sexualised. The dialogue passes the Bechdel Test on a number of occasions and I enjoyed how the script played a lot with the male characters’ expectations of China. Everyone calls her “little girl” or “little lady” and says “uh, pardon my French” when they swear around her then, when they step out of line and harrass her, get shocked into submission by her skills (“She’s one of those chop suey fighters!”).

The fact that, as Sheriff, she hires female staff (whereas previously the whole department was a poker-playing cigar-chomping boys’ club) isn’t lost either. Hell, this film is so feminist it even has a Tori Amos song on the soundtrack! This is an interesting story in itself, as Distant Storm is a rare pre-fame Tori tune – credited to Tess Makes Good – recorded especially for the film, between her unsuccessful Y Kant Tori Read project and her breakthrough solo debut. Tori reckons she was paid $150 to sing it. Money well spent as it’s a cracker.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d never try to argue that the China O’Brien films are anything deeper than B-Movies, but they’re a shining example of how to make a lot from a little. They run on picking top class talent more than having a lot of cash to blow and are tighter than Richard Norton’s double denim. Whether you come for the story or the fights, you get your money’s worth. The stunts and fight choreography may not be as elaborate as some of their HK counterparts (what is?) but still remain some of the best you’ll see in American-made kick flicks of the era. I know it’s probably too late now but I still wish that one day the Weintraubs would make a third film and we could go back to Beaver Creek and see how everyone’s doing… I’ve gotta be honest. I miss ’em.