I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

China O’Brien

tn_chinaobrienAfter directing movies to showcase the martial arts skills of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jim Kelly, and the guy from GYMKATA, director Robert Clouse figured “why not the white lady from YES MADAM?” That’s five time World Karate Champion in forms and weapons between 1981 and 1985 Cynthia Rothrock, playing the title character.

When the movie begins, China O’Brien is teaching martial arts to inner city toughs, I think in L.A. One student, a guy named Termite, disrespectfully goes to get a cup of water during class. When China tells him to get back in line he says “All this fancy shit don’t mean nothin on the streets. I’d like to see you against the Bloods,” and challenges her to fight 5 of his friends in an alley that night. Although she’s against violence she agrees.

When she shows up for the fight (wearing a pretty scarf, by the way – a distinctly feminine form of showing she’s not scared at all) she doesn’t realize that Termite has been jumped and never showed up, and the dudes she’s fighting are just the random creeps that attack anybody that goes into an alley in a movie of this era. So they must think she’s a weirdo explaining all of the moves she’s using on them and saying “If you have any questions, please see me later.”

Eventually Termite does show up, and China notices a hand emerging from the shadows pointing a gun at Termite’s head. So she pulls out a gun and shoots the gunman… who turns out to be really young, so she feels bad.

BAM – cut to China quitting the force, handing in her gun and badge willingly. This is unusual for a couple reasons: 1. usually the chief has to angrily demand a gun and badge in order for them to be turned in 2. If you’re gonna willingly quit the force you’re supposed to throw your badge in the water like at the end of DIRTY HARRY and most importantly 3. the movie doesn’t tell us she’s a cop until the moment she’s no longer a cop.

mp_chinaobrienOh, so that’s which plot this is. This is the one where the big city cop returns to the small home town only to discover that it’s being controlled and corrupted by bullying thugs. China’s dad (David Blackwell) is the Sheriff of Beaver Creek, Utah, which seems to be even worse than the city as far as randomly being attacked. China has to beat up a bunch of assholes at the Beaver Creek Inn. They’re rednecks, so one of them says, “Shit, you see that? She’s one o’ them chop suey fighters!” Weirdly, everybody she fights seems to also be one o’ them chop suey fighters, doing their chop suey moves on her.

There’s a corrupt judge and corrupt sheriff’s deputy. Later in the movie there will be car bombings and a drive-by shooting of a picnic while people are singing “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in China’s honor. A watermelon and a jar of pickles meet their maker. Where can you go to be safe? Not the city. Not not the city. We’re doomed!

There are some good people in Beaver Creek, too. There’s China’s high school boyfriend Matt (Richard Norton), who still lives in Beaver Creek even though he’s been in the Special Forces and turned all badass since she dated him. I guess maybe he travelled around the world and that’s how he got an Australian accent. Also there’s a young Native American man named Dakota (Keith Cooke), who is introduced as a guy playing Asteroids at the Inn who gets involved in the brawl to help China. Then he blatantly follows her around on his motorcycle for days and helps her in a fight where criminals are trying to kill her and her father, then follows her more, and then eventually she and Matt decide to talk to him for the first time and find out what his deal is. So we find out why he has a prosthetic hand that screws onto his motorcycle handlebar.

China needs friends like Matt and Dakota, because the movie quickly turns into WALKING TALL and she’s running for sheriff against criminals who are trying to rig the election. Even the firefighters are corrupt, they drive in during one of China’s rallies and try to put out a celebratory bonfire. Matt beats them up and stops them. You wouldn’t see that in a post 9-11 movie.

The action is comparable to other Cannon-level American martial arts movies of the ’80s. (Well, this is 1990.) Rothrock is obviously good at what she does so it’s fun to watch her kick people, but let’s be honest, Clouse was not making an effort to maintain an ENTER THE DRAGON level of quality throughout his career. The biggest fight is probly the brawl that happens as a result of attempted voter fraud at a polling place. That means the school gym, so almost all of the fighting takes place on safety mats. They do manage to work alot of different exercise equipment into the choreography. Two guys try to push a barbell down onto Matt, which makes them reverse spotters.

Keith Cooke definitely seems to have studied Bruce Lee’s poses and expressions. He went on to be in KING OF KICKBOXERS, to play Reptile in MORTAL KOMAT and Sub-Zero in MORTAL KOMBAT ANNIHILATION.

If you’re wondering about the name, they never explain it. It seems like it’s her given name, and not a nickname she got for being interested in Asian martial arts. They also don’t make a point of her being Irish.

Rothrock’s obviously not a real polished actress, and is kind of laughable in the scene where she gets hysterical about the car bombing. I mean yeah, it’s a tragedy, but this is behavior unbecoming of an action hero. I don’t think Mallory Kane would do that. But I think Rothhrock is likable. I don’t know, she has kind of a square quality that’s a good contrast to her asskicking. And being that it’s 1990 I appreciate that she doesn’t have some horrible perm. She does think it’s okay for a sheriff to wear acid washed jeans, though.

According to Wikipedia there’s a song on the soundtrack called “Distant Storm” by “Tess Makes Good, with additional vocals by Ellen Amos.” Apparently this is the singer Tori Amos before anybody ever heard of her. Anybody but the makers of CHINA O’BRIEN, so don’t condescend to them, they were there before you guys were. I like the idea of the movie getting rented all the time by Tori Amos fans. And they gotta watch the whole thing because they probly don’t know where the song is.

P.S. Did they ever use the tagline “She will, she will Rothrock you” for any of her movies?

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, May 17th, 2012 at 11:22 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

26 Responses to “China O’Brien”

  1. As I sit here and try to think of something to say about CHINA O’BRIEN, it hits me that, holy shit, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen CHINA O’BRIEN. What the hell is wrong with me?

    In other Rothrock news, I will say that you should check out NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER II: RAGING THUNDER, in which she plays the plucky blond sidekick who kicks a lot of people and also flies a helicopter or something. It’s a completely inexplicable movie that is also totally amazing.

  2. I’ve never been a fan of Rothrock, and I don’t really like anything she’s done after she left Hong Kong. As for Clouse, I think he did a great job on Enter the Dragon, but as The Ultimate Warrior and The Pack shows he should have consentrated on regular action movies instead of all those half assed kung fu flicks.

  3. I read that title and think, when did Conan O’Brien make a movie?

    ~Masturbating Bear Kung fu fighting? License to print money.

  4. So we go from duck-fucking to bear-masturbating.

    Keep it classy, fellas.

  5. Darth Irritable

    May 17th, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    They did not use that tagline. Notwithstanding being all of about 4’3″, Cynthia kicks ass. But her acting never really evolved.

    I did like that up until Gina, she was really the only credible-looking female fighter*, which as a fighter, really took me out of these movies. Jaime Pressly, oddly enough looked remarkably credible as a fighter in DOA: Dead or Alive.

    * Excluding Hong Kong stars like Michelle Yeoh.

  6. Holy Shit. Up until now I assumed Rothrock was the lead in Excessive Force II: Force on Force (best title ever?). Her IMDB bio shows she wasn’t in that one, but was in No Retreat No Surrender II, China O’Brien I/II, Martial Law I/II, Rage and Honor I/II, Lady Dragon I/II, Fast Getaway I/II, and Tiger Claws I/II/III. Could that possibly be the highest number of franchises ever for one person? (And to think I thought it was weird that Robert Downey Jr. had both the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes franchises)

  7. Last week I passed on the chance to buy EXCESSIVE FORCE II for three bucks.

    I fucked up, didn’t I?

  8. I gotta admit that I never saw Cynthia Rothrock in anything, except for that one HERCULES episode, where she played a fire demon or something like that.

  9. Is it me, or do “forms and weapons” Karate Championships solely exist to provide a bit of credibility to minor martial arts movie stars? If I’m not mistaken, bot ANGELFIST’s Cat Sassoon and WHITE PHANTOM’s Jay Roberts Jr also boasted forms and weapons championships… You don’t see that on Norris’ or Van Damme’s resume.

  10. GYMKATA is one of the funniest movies ever made, I love that movie so much….

    the great thing about it is that it’s not that bad of a movie structurally, it’s well paced and not boring, but at the same time is has so many bizarre and cheesy moments

    it’s the best of both worlds

    anyway Tori Amos also did songs for that Robin Williams movie TOYS before she became big

  11. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    May 17th, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I’m conflicted by this one, because on the one hand, I do think there are good parts. On the other hand, so much of it is just so… wrong. My biggest problem with it is that the characters and setting are so totally uninteresting, I couldn’t care less what happens to them. Rothrick doesn’t even come close to making a character that’s already pretty stereotypical seem unusual or interesting.

    Y’know, remembering this movie and comparing it to “Enter the Dragon” (one of my all-time favorite movies) makes me think that action movie stars almost HAVE to be either students or assholes – or at least have a character arc that involves one or the other of these qualities at some point. If you start the movie with the action lead being a skilled paragon, it so often just doesn’t work. Look at the success of the original “Matrix” as compared to its sequels, “Conan the Barbarian” versus “Conan the Destroyer”, etc.

    Hell, look at Seagal’s entire filmography – arguably some of the worst (“The Patriot”, “Against the Dark”) in which he’s portrayed from the start as somebody who is universally accepted as a hero, versus arguably his best (“Marked for Death”) where his character has some serious issues (most of the movie takes place after he returns home to recover his sanity after killing a naked woman in self-defence). Even in a movie like “Blood and Bone”, where the hero is pretty close to a paragon onscreen, it’s made clear that the same qualities have got him into serious trouble offscreen; and besides, Bone has his own distinct character arc.

    But thinking of all my favorite action movies… “Die Hard”‘s John McClane definitely has a mean streak. “Enter the Dragon”‘s Lee is a sadistic bastard, pure and simple. More recently, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” features as its protagonist a guy who’s so stricken with PTSD that he almost kills a complete stranger because of a paranoid delusion that said stranger is his enemy, whereas “Kill Zone”‘s cops are very willing to work outside the law, up to and including the point of murder, in order to get shit done.

    Biggest exception I can think of at the moment… “Aliens”‘ Ripley. Who is clearly a strong woman but not a bitch or a trainee. (Although I guess you could argue that her character arc of gaining respect from the troops, when initially they regard her as inexperienced and a possible liability, is a subversion of the “trainee hero” arc.)

  12. I’d like to point out some pertinent nerd shit. The original publication dates for Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN VOLUME 5 “A GAME OF YOU” (Sandman #32-37) cover 1991-92. The compilation I have has a copyright date of 1993, but includes that 1991-92 stuff. The dedication on the page just before “Chapter One” of my edition of A GAME OF YOU reads:

    ****’Facts are engraved Hierograms for which the fewest have the key.’
    For two of the few: Jonathan Carroll and Tori Amos. ****

    So, it appears Gaiman was ahead of the pro-Tori Amos, post-Ellen Amos bandwagon. Her first album came out in 1992 according to AllMusic.com.

    I don’t know what this all means, but I figure it could help some of us score some brownie points if we’re ever trying to hook up with one of them artsy emo Indigo Girl poet singer-songwriter types.

    Then, once the girl’s given it up due to being wowed by our extensive early 90s Ellen Amos knowledge, we can ignore her interests and force her to watch stuff like CHINA O’BRIEN & ENTER THE DRAGON with impunity. Everybody wins.

  13. SANDMAN and Tori Amos are inextricably linked. If you wanted to bang a girl who wore ripped fishnets under cutoff jean shorts, you needed a passing familiarity with at least one of them.

  14. Girls are weird.

  15. Griff – GYMKATA is an odd, mediocre little movie. Of course it’s core problem is that the lead…wasn’t much of a lead. Sure a gymnastics action hero is a hard sell, but if he was likeable and charismatic or any of those things, then you could get away with alot of stupid shit.

    (see Seagal and his ponytail.*)

    *=I’m sorry Vern.

  16. I’m not saying anything bad about Tori Amos. She’s got a pretty voice and is quite talented but I would never really listen to her on my own.

    That being said I still have a lot of Tori Amos on my i-pod because I like girls that like Tori Amos. I think that is what the industry people call “crossover appeal”.

    On the other hand Cynthia Rothrock might be the only girl who’s aware of the existence of Cynthia Rothrock.

  17. In my college days, my secret music library weapon for 2 different girls, as I recall, was Ben Kweller, whoever the fuck that is. And Elliot Smith for this one other girl. I still don’t like dudes’ music, but damn did those bullshit tunes ever help me & my testes out back in the day.

    I overhear Girl mention Ben Kweller in conversation outside or during class, do my research, download, find a reason to have her come over, casually bump some Ben Kweller while I offer her a tequila smoothie. . . boom, magic happens.

    {hi 5s spirit of Ben Kweller} Mmmmm, college. I should re-enroll for some graduate classes.

    Anyway, I was pulling essentially the same trick that Rob Lowe does with his headphones & cassette player stereo in ABOUT LAST NIGHT. . ., which is a great fucking movie, by the way.

  18. When I read “tequila smoothie,” I get the image of a guy taking a girl to McDonald’s and spiking her shamrock shake.

  19. If you ever have an image of me in a McDonald’s, uh, you don’t know me too well.

    I’m top shelf, first class, elitist all the way. I’ll die before I patronize, or subject the digestive system of myself or anyone for whom I care to the disgusting product of, American fast food chains.

  20. Jareth Cutestory

    May 18th, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Mouth: It’s not such a big mystery – Amos fronted a band called Y Kant Tori Read in the 1980s that attracted enough attention from the industry to warrant a 6 record deal, but were weird enough to have a certain hip credibility. They put out their first and only record in 1988; two singles were released from the album.

    The CHINA O’BREIN song is apparently the second of two songs she made under the Tess Makes Good name. I suspect it is the result of her record company’s strong insistance that she produce material in compliance with her contract.

  21. “In other Rothrock news, I will say that you should check out NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER II: RAGING THUNDER, in which she plays the plucky blond sidekick who kicks a lot of people and also flies a helicopter or something. It’s a completely inexplicable movie that is also totally amazing.”

    Yeah man that movie is certified classic in my book. I’ve actually seen the CHINA O’BRIEN movies but I can’t for the life of me really remember them since it was so many years ago. I haven’t seen NRNS2 in years either but I could never forget Rothrock pummeling an asian man inside a ring. Talk about iconic scenery.

    Does anybody else remember how the Sonya Blade sprite in the first MORTAL KOMBAT game looked exactly like Cynthia Rothrock? just like how Johnny Cage looked like JCVD. I really wonder how a movie with those 2 in those roles would’ve turned out.

  22. “reverse spotters” made me guffaw so loud my boss came over to see what was going on.

  23. Now, now, Mouth. It wasn’t a slam against you so much as an honest observation about what the term conjured in my brain. Of course, I grew up in an area where McD’s was a fine dining establishment. I probably just proposed what would be an ideal cocktail or at the very least the way a few guys I can think of got laid after high school.

  24. I was never really into Rothrock. Her American films always seemed cheesy to me as a kid, but this one sounds pretty good. I will also check out NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER II: RAGING THUNDER. I recently watched YES MADAM and she was awesome in that one. She is also good in Millionaire Express, but she is not in it very much. Have any of you seen her film ABOVE THE LAW also staring Yuen Biao? I heard it is a good one.

  25. Yo Vern, have you seen UNDEFEATABLE? You’ve probably seen the final fight scene as it went viral on the internet years ago under the title “The Best Fight Scene of All Time” (which I believe is meant ironically even though it’s great), but it’s best experienced within the larger context of the movie. I could have sworn you’d already reviewed it but I can’t find it.

  26. No I haven’t, but I’ve been meaning to. Thanks for the reminder.

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>