China O'Brien

China O'Brien ★★★

Part of my 2019 Theme Month Extravaganza
Ladies Kickin' Ass

Having proved she could carry hits in Hong Kong, Golden Harvest presented Cynthia Rothrock's debut as a U.S. headliner, bringing in the same director who made Bruce Lee a household name. China's a metropolitan cop and kung fu instructor who retreats to her hometown of Beaver Creek, UT after shooting an unarmed teen. She reconnects with the bearded, denim-encased Australian (Richard Norton) she grew up with(?), and finds her sheriff dad (David Blackwell) despairing the corrupt grip of a dumpy old crimelord (Steven Kerby) who gets off on torturing women. Things escalate to the point the younger O'Brien must run for sheriff herself. With the help of Norton and an inscrutable, one-handed biker (Keith Cooke), they must punch and kick a lot of condescending redneck thugs in the face before, during and even after Election Day.

China O'Brien is a comfortably corny beat 'em up, drawing its story from the same moonshine still as Walking Tall and Road House. Its small scale and bland filler cast betray its direct-to-video heritage, but the production is considerably elevated by the sheer amount of the fights, along with their surprising quality. The only starring role I'd previously seen Rothrock in was her debut, the bonkers HK buddy cop flick Yes, Madam!, and found her presence much more endearing here. She manages to put some warmth into her standard grade revenge ass-kicker, easily outshining her male co-fighters Norton and Cooke in both moves and personality. It's almost a bummer that they're here at all, as if the production team felt a female hero needed propping up by men, but I have to admit that by the end, it felt like the trio were a genuine team, assembled under China as their undisputed leader.

To me, the hints of villain Kerby's sadistic tendencies felt too icky and mean-spirited for something this determinedly cheesy, but that was the only aspect worth griping about, and it ultimately results in a decent payoff. Now that I've finally soaked in one of Cynthia Rothrock's signature titles, I'm eager to check out more, beginning with China O'Brien II, which Robert Clouse made back-to-back with part one. I get the sense that even if a movie's a clunker in the plot department, this blonde badass can make it watchable.

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