I gotta admit, I didn’t know what Chad McQueen looked like, or that he starred in this, so I thought “Who the fuck is this?” when he showed up undercover as a pizza delivery man to defuse a hostage situation at Crown Diamonds. Those dumb fucks shoulda known the cops wouldn’t allow a real Domino’s dude to walk in there. Even in Seattle, where we’ll have a $15 minimum wage in a couple years, it wouldn’t be worth it, and this is Los Angeles circa 1990. (The 25th anniversary is on the 16th of next month, so get the balloons ready.) Also, fuck these guys for not insisting on giving him a huge tip when they believed he was a legit employee. Not cool at all, gunmen.
Anyway, he’s really a cop, so he karates them. He’s playing Detective Sean Thompson, nicknamed Martial Law. It took me a while to catch on that it’s because he’s a lawman who does martial arts. We learn that after his dad died in 1983 he took off to Hong Kong for a few years “to prove how tough I was.” He regrets it because he left his younger brother Michael (Andy McCutcheon) behind and now the kid wears a leather jacket, has two DUIs, crashed their mom’s car and steals sports cars.
The opening scene shows signs of a smartass screenwriter (that would be Richard Brandes). There’s an unexpected laugh when the commanding officer and another cop are discussing the hostage-takers’ demands.
“Well, what do they want?”
“Two. Pizzas. Large specials.”
“What do we do, sir?”
“Get the god damn pizzas! What are you, new?”
She pauses. “Yeah,” she admits sadly.
And then, inside, the dumpy, gum-chewing criminal ringleader yells “Both of you, shut up! I demand decorum!” They had to’ve known that was a funny phrase for that guy to use. That’s like a Coen Brothers phrase. But after that most of the movie is generic karate cop stuff, not much flavor to it. McQueen may or may not know some real martial arts (remember, his old man was a student of Bruce Lee), but his moves don’t look onscreen-impressive enough to completely overcome his not-tall, not-slim, not-muscly figure. What I’m getting at is that you’ll probly smile or chuckle when you see him slowly practice his katas on the beach at sunset with soothing saxophone scoring like a late night cable softcore movie.
But that’s okay. I accept that he is Martial Law. He also teaches, and when he’s upset he takes it out on a gray-haired student he’s sparring with. Kind of a dick move. We get more kicks from his live-in girlfriend and co-worker Billie Blake (Cynthia Rothrock). They seem to have pretty lax rules at this department, letting this couple not only partner up but investigate the murder of Thompson’s own brother (spoiler).
Speaking of white martial artists, little brother’s boss Dalton Rhodes is played by David Carradine. He’s a ruthless leader of the high end car theft gang and also a master of the death touch. Thompson, of course, sees a body with a bruise on the chest and explains Dim Mak to the other cops because of his time in Hong Kong.
Rhodes has a couple great henchmen and a couple of knuckleheads. The good ones are Professor Toru Tanaka as Jimmy Kong and stunt coordinator Philip Tan (SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO, BLOODSPORT 2) as Wu Han. Unfortunately Jimmy Kong doesn’t last too long. Rhodes gives him the death touch just to prove a point.
But the less essential employees are the car thief doofuses like Michael and his rival Faster Brown (V.C. Dupree from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN) and a bunch of other guys who throw some moves when cornered by Thompson and Blake. At first it seemed like a funny use of that movie cliche that all criminals know martial arts, but then I realized that he recruits all his crooks out of the dojo, so it actually makes sense.
Faster Brown is so jealous of Michael that when he sees him getting hassled by Martial Law he reports him as an informant. Rhodes decides to settle the dispute by having them fight to the death. In his office. With nunchakus. I was disappointed when Rhodes pulled out a gun because I think he should’ve had to live with his decision to ask them to beat each other with little sticks. He woulda been there all night and he would’ve deserved it.
In the early ’80s, directors who had cut their teeth on music videos started going into features, bringing with them a new emphasis on stylized lighting and energetic editing. For example Russell Mulcahy, director of the first video to ever play on MTV, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” made a splash with RAZORBACK and HIGHLANDER. Mulcahy directed a couple of Billy Joel videos, but not until after this guy Steve Cohen had already directed ten of them. Mostly just live stuff, but not bad.
Like, this is a pretty cinematic video, right? This is the best one he did.
Unfortunately Cohen’s feature directing debut MARTIAL LAW is entirely lacking in the ol’ visual panache department. You would think he maybe directed Highway To Heaven episodes or something, but not videos. He later did an episode of V.I.P. His other most notable feature in my opinion is TOUGH AND DEADLY starring Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks. After this he did second unit for a couple DTV action movies that I really dig, MISSION OF JUSTICE and ONE TOUGH BASTARD.
The fight scenes are okay in that distinct American-Cynthia-Rothrock-movie type of way. The most memorable detail is that an alley fight happens in front of a brick wall with “G.G. ALLEN” spray-painted on it. I know the deranged, shit-throwing rocker (who got out of prison around the time this came out) spelled it “Allin,” but that’s gotta be who it means, right? Impressive reference for a movie like this, I think.
The climax is your standard double one-on-one, McQueen vs. Carradine, Rothrock vs. Tan. In a sense it’s unfair because Rothrock seems like the superior fighter on the good guy side, but her boyfriend gets the honor of fighting the main heavy and martial arts icon. On the other hand Martial Law does have the personal motive for revenge and Tan is a more acrobatic fighter than Carradine, making for more elaborate choreography in that fight. Also I respect any movie that lets a woman duel a man instead of providing a female henchman specifically for her to fight. There’s a certain progressiveness in that.
In the end (SPOILER) Martial Law wins by busting out a death touch of his own. What does this mean? He picked it up by studying Rhodes’s fighting style? He got real lucky? No, I take it to mean that was one of the things he learned during his mythical years overseas, but he just didn’t tell anybody. Either he was ashamed of it or he had to vow secrecy or in my opinion he just learned over the years not to let anybody know he knows how to do it ’cause it gets to be a pain in the ass, it’s just like if you have a truck or a van all your friends are gonna want you to help them move.
[NOTE FROM THE FUTURE: Long after this review Vinegar Syndrome put out a great set of the two MARTIAL LAW films on blu-ray, but it was limited edition so it may be pricey to find at this point.]