China O’Brien is a prime example of the kind of movies I’d rent every weekend in the heyday of VHS. It’s a low-budget martial arts romp that’s filled with flimsy plotting, amateurish acting, and the expected “there’s a fight lingering around every corner!” but the reason this is more entertaining than a lot of them isn’t simply because of the kick-ass guitar riffs in the background of the multiple fight sequences but also because co-stars Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton and Keith Cooke kick and punch their way through some cool martial arts moments while being pretty likeable. It also benefits from being directed by Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon, the almighty Gymkata) and fills your need for corrupt businessmen, gun-touting baddies, and multiple double-and-triple kicks.
Filmed back-to-back with a sequel, China O’Brien is goofy and looks cheap but if you’re not entertained by all the silly goings-on then what the Hell are you doing here in the first place? Rothrock plays the title character who we first see training her fellow officers at the precinct all about martial arts. Having gotten used to her co-workers trying to one-up her she thinks a chance encounter with some thugs in an alleyway is staged. It’s not. She ends up shooting and killing a young baddie which traumatizes her so much she decides to turn in her badge and head back to the small town in Utah where she grew up.
Not long after returning home and reconnecting with friends, her sheriff father, and former high school sweetheart Matt (Norton); China finds herself having to come out of her self-imposed sabbatical when her dad and his deputy are killed by car bombs planted by slimy crime boss Sommers (Steven Kerby) who wants to control the town. From here China runs for sheriff and deputizes Matt and Dakota (Cooke), a mysterious one-handed Native-American she’s befriended who spends the first half of the film staring at her and tooling around on his dirt bike, in order to take on Sommers and his henchmen in a finale loaded with non-stop fisticuffs.
If you’ve ever wanted to see construction workers getting a beat-down, a brawl that breaks out during China’s town rally to get votes to become sheriff (and gets all the townsfolk worked up), Dakota’s biking shenanigans and a whole slew of poorly dubbed kicking and punching sound effects then China O’Brien may be for you! This and its sequel are definitely the cheapest looking films Clouse made but it delivers everything the teenage me of the past would be looking for over my B-movie filled weekends.
I have to give Rothrock full credit for being one of the few female stars amongst all the men during the low-budget action boom of the 80’s and early 90’s. A five-time World Champion and holder of seven black belts, Cynthia was recruited by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest to make martial arts films and thanks to her pixie-ish charm and deadly moves I’d pretty much watch anything she made despite her being on a Don “The Dragon” Wilson level when it came to emoting. When paired with Australian Norton, Rothrock delivered her most watchable movies (Rage & Honor, for example) and he’s his usual steady self here. Cooke is unconvincing as a Native but makes up for this with some pretty impressive aerial kicks. It’s too bad he couldn’t have made more of a splash in the direct-to-video action market as his skills are quite apparent. Kerby plays your typical baddie decently and this would mark his only credit as he’d pass away three years later.
The easiest way to know if this is for you is to ask yourself how you’d react if you were walking along and a knife-wielding punk accosted you. If you’d like to think you might let out a blood-curdling howl, kick the knife out of his grubby paw, and proceed to give him the beating of a lifetime then you shouldn’t hesitate in watching this. Otherwise, if you know going in you’re getting a bargain basement looking production that follows a by-the-book plot but has lots of ass kicking (and are still interested knowing this) then you’ll surely get some entertainment out of this – just make sure to watch with at least one like-minded individual for maximum fun. (Chris Hartley, 11/3/16)
Directed By: Robert Clouse.
Written By: Robert Clouse.
Starring: Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, Keith Cooke, Doug Wright.