CHINA O’ BRIEN 1 and 2 [1990]

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China O'Brien 1 and 2





China O’Brien is a cop in the big city who also happens to be a Karate instructor. After a shooting incident results in the death of a teenage boy, she hands in her badge and moves back to the rural Utah town where she grew up, Beaver Creek. Her father is the sheriff, and he does his best, but crime and corruption are rife and it, naturally, goes all the way to a cruel and greedy mob boss named Edwin Sommers who uses corrupt deputy Marty Lickner and corrupt local judge Harry Godard to help him control the town. China reunites with childhood sweetheart Matt Conroy, and she’ll need his help when things get so bad that she decides to both run for her father’s job and stop Sommers once and for all. And who’s that Native American youth who lends a hand every now and again?….

I considered watching the China O’ Brien movies not that long ago, after I’d seen Eureka Entertainment’s releases of Millionaire’s Express and Blonde Fury, as well as Righting Wrongs which was brought out by another which has been rewarding Hong Kong movie fans 88 Films. I wanted more Rothrock, and I didn’t think that Eureka would be interested in releasing two American martial arts films which went straight to video except in Portugal and Peru, though I got sidetracked and only remembered when Eureka announced that, yes, they were actually bringing them out. I hadn’t seen them before for one reason which many martial arts film lovers will agree with; once you get into the Asian and especially the Hong Kong side of things, American genre efforts end to seem rather poor by comparison, the action being slow and unexciting, and especially back in the ’80s and the first half of the ’90s, before the Hong Kong style began to be increasingly seen in movies. So I wasn’t much interested in seeing these films, despite them probably being Cynthia Rothrock’s two most popular. But now here they are, from a label which probably wouldn’t have touched them a few years ago, but things have changed, such movies being treated as well as silent classics and art house pictures. Are they worth this? Well this first film isn’t going to be anybody’s idea of a great martial arts movie, but it may be rather better than expected. The plot is pretty basic, but the fights, of which there are plenty though not so many that they take over the storyline, are impressive for an American effort of the time, with sometimes surprising speed and invention, and Rothrock, who did little more than fight in her Hong Kong pictures, gets a chance to show some acting chips in a role which, while hardly complex, does require some thespian ability – and she’s actually quite good!

We begin in  – well actually I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be – but anywhere we’re in a city. Our cop heroine China is dropped off by her partner by the karate school at which she teaches, and the film’s titles are intercut with her telling her class to perform certain moves. She’s a tough teacher, shown by her ordering one of her students not to get a cup of water until class is finished. When he disobeys, she kicks the cup out of his hand. “All this shit don’t mean nothing on the street”, he claims, and challenges her to a fight at a designated place 10 pm that evening. However, our expectations of seeing her beat up this arrogant punk are dashed when he’s beaten up by two thieves, a surprise really. China arrives at the meeting point, and it’s so of the period with far more smoke coming out the back of a restaurant than there should be. She’s suddenly attacked by a group of punks and we get our first fight sequence, and it’s very cool the way China describes what each technique is as she inflicts damage on each attacker, finishing with “if you have any questions, come see me later”. A friend of the kid who challenged her in the school then shows up to help out, but then somebody points a gun at this guy, and China shoots him, before realising that she’s just killed a kid. Her resignation from the force lacks any power because we only see a few seconds of her doing so; I’d have liked to have seen a few minutes where we can feel her pain, and with maybe her boss either asking her to resign or to to stay. But never mind, she’s off to her home town while a rather too upbeat song plays on the soundtrack. She calls in at the local police station looking for her dad, but he’s busy in a bar, not drinking on his time off but, along with his deputy Ross Tyler, making an arrest despite being surrounded by folk who object to him doing this. However, the prisoner seems very confident that he’ll soon be out on in a jiffy, and indeed bail money almost immediately arrives.

The source of the money is a company which just might be a ghost one “owned” by crime boss Sommers who also controls deputy Marty Lickner and judge Harry Godar. Lickner and Godar aren’t bothered one bit when they meet at Sommers’s house and hear screams coming from upstairs when Sommers tortures a woman he’s holding prisoner, for seemingly no more reason than he’s an evil bastard. First of all China has to contend with nothing worse than her high school admirer wanting to see more of her, though he does immediately kiss her on the lips after not having seen her in ages, which you’d think would put her off him. But she soon finds that the bar isn’t a particularly welcoming one, though she’s helped by this Native American teenager who begins to follow her around and almost assumes the role of her guardian angel. “Are you sure that you’re through with law enforcement”, asks dad. “I’ll never touch a gun” replies daughter, which of course doesn’t mean that, when she’d enlightened as to what’s going on on in Beaver Creek [ no sniggering please], she’ll just sit around and do nothing. Sommers virtually rules the town and, in the lumber factory, almost immediately gets an aide to strangle someone who he thinks is pocketing some money from “the operation” for himself. Sheriff O’ Brien comes along and orders the place be shut down, and after another fight comes away with another arrest, but Godar rules that O’ Brien overstepped the mark and again a criminal gets off scott free. There’s certainly a decent bit of build up here; even when something happens which causes China to set out to clean up the town, we spend some time on her running for sheriff, and her increasingly popularity with the locals despite increased pressure from Sommers’s goons. It’s revealed that this seemingly mysterious Native American has not just a very good reason for being involved but considerable martial arts skills of his own, and luckily so does Matt, there being no time for romance.

So yes, the fight scenes might seem lethargic to what Rothrock and Richard Norton were doing in Hong Kong, meaning that it’s more obvious that multiple opponents are often attacking them one at a time, but lets not forget that some undercranking [slightly speeding up the film] was often done over there. More disappointing is how short they are, but they are quite numerous without taking over. The early alley fight is actually rather weak despite a bit of cool stuff by an African-American guy who unfortunately never appears again, and may cause some viewers to think that the rest of the action will be like this, but they’d be wrong. A bar brawl is a bit better, if coming across like a Steven Segal fight [well, an early Steven Segal fight],but successive ones in a lumber factory, during an outdoor party which spills on to a fire engine, in a gym and in a house really impress. Rothrock does often seem dubbed, but she still clearly performs some great bits herself such as sliding along a bar and kicking, and at times uses what’s at hand Jackie Chan-style, including a microphone stand, cymbals and weights. Norton also gets a lot of chances to shine, which he certainly does, though, with all due respect to the gentleman and the leading lady, the most memorable bits are performed by Keith Cooke as Dakota [surely they could have thought up a better name for the Native American character?]. He’s been in other films, such as the first two Mortal Kombats, but I reckon he’s been largely wasted seeing what he pulls off here, from knocking down three people with one kick to jumping and spinning around on a car. I had probably understandable low expectations of the action, but was pleasantly surprised by it for the most part, Norton’s rough and ready style, Rothrock’s more traditional Kung Fu and Cooke’s athleticism channeling Bruce Lee making for a nice mix, even though it’s disappointing that none of the main villains can fight, preventing us from enjoying a big climactic showdown.

A few small humorous touches, such as a guy grabbing a pole off a ceiling to fight with and then falling onto the floor due to the weight, work well, though were we meant to laugh at Norton’s character attacking some firemen simply for trying to put out a fire? We laugh anyway. Rothrock conveys her character’s journey convincingly enough, but unfortunately Dakota’s part of the story, while important, isn’t dealt with the best it could be. We learn of the reason for him being the way that he is, and get a flashback which we think is going to lead in to another flashback which will show something, but we don’t and just hear ab0ut a major event in passing. Let’s admit it, Norton was never much of an actor, but he does share considerable chemistry with Rothrock which makes it understandable that they would work together again three times – which almost makes us forget the improbability of a Utah native with an Australian accent. Screenwriters Robert Clouse and Sandra Weintraub could have written in a line or two explaining this but obviously couldn’t be bothered. Clouse, forever respected for Enter The Dragon whose success he never came close to repeating even though his direction, which was often clumsy in the Lee picture with sometimes very poor fight blocking, improved considerable, does a reasonable job, certain weak moments like not one but two car explosions which cut from the car about to be blown up to a different car being blown up probably being more because of the low budget. The synth music score by David Wheatley and Paul Antonelli also doesn’t help in places, particularly during a funeral scene where an appropriately mournful melody is undercut by the rhythm underneath it, meaning that we’re nowhere near as moved by the scene as we want to be.

China O’ Brien deserves the home video success that it had, and it makes one think it a shame that Rothrock never had some big cinema hits in the west that would have made her a huge star. She certainly had the potential to become one. The camera likes her, she has an interesting sort of prettiness, her acting ability is greater than several other Hollywood action stars, and boy can she move. But at least we have China O’ Brien to not just muse on what could have been but to appreciate and enjoy.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆



Brand new feature-length audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
Our duo are on fine form, having a lot of fun praising and affectionately ribbing the movie, though Leeder dominates more than he’s done in some time. Leeder explains why Cooke we never see one of his hands – he broke a thumb and finger while promoting the film, talks about Norton being distracted by a woman’s boobs while making another film, and proves that you shouldn’t always go by Wikipedia, correcting what it says about Rothrock interrupting shooting to finish Righting Wrongs – that film was made three years before this one. Venema tends to just respond to Leeder, though the chat is still never less than worthwhile, and Venema does tell us that this was curiously released in the UK first. Both think that the opening fight could be test footage, and chuckle a lot at the sillier bits. As always, a must listen,

Select-scene commentary by Cynthia Rothrock and Frank Djeng [9 mins]
A typically happy-sounding Rothrock answers question from Djeng over the outdoor fight scene during the election meeting and the gym fight. She says that they sometimes ran out of good stuntpeople and had to resort to asking anyone to have a go, that they usually didn’t know what they were shooting until the day, and that she and Norton began to drink the real alcohol in the bar until producer Fred Weintraub told them off because it cost money.

“Made in China” – Cynthia Rothrock interview [22 mins]
Rothrock doesn’t seem heavily made up or having had plastic surgery, yet she looks just as good as she does in the films. I don’t know what she’s taking, but I want some. She says that she, Norton and Cooke were often fighting the same stunt person in the same scene because stunt fighters were few in number, and that not only was she injured due to a mistiming by an extra but one stunt person was killed on set! This isn’t mentioned anywhere else and was the first I knew about it. Rothrock also laments the fact that, despite Golden Harvest being keen, plans for China O’ Brien 3 and 4 were nixed because of her commitment to doing The Executioner with Sylvester Stallone which of course was never made. This is a great interview which has a lot of other interesting insights and stories, while Rothrock seems a lovely, vibrant person.

Richard Norton interview, by A.J. Richardi and Gavin Kelley of The Martial Arts Mania Podcast [49 mins]
Like Rothrock, the 72-year old Norton looks much younger than his years in this fairly long video interview which goes pretty in depth into certain subjects. And after watching you may yourself wish for a phone call where a person says to you “Jackie wants you to work on his movie, what’s your price”? Norton says that each of the three stars had considerable input into their action, that Clouse “always seemed deep in thought” and a better director than Rothrock suggests, and that in America they know the fights from start to finish before shooting, while in Hong Kong they make it up as they go along. Oh, and Rothrock, Norton and Cooke are doing a western movie together! Though not carried out by Eureka themselves, this is something of a treat.

“Leon Hunt on China O’Brien” – Brand new interview with Leon Hunt, author of Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger [21 mins]
This includes some clips from the second film, so you may want to wait until you’ve seen the latter first. I did. Hunt seems a little bemused as to how popular these movies were and are. He defends Clouse, whom many haven’t forgiven for Game Of Death. Darker Than Amber has now been mentioned twice on this disc so I have to try to see or find it; it may have got Bruce Lee to get Clouse for Enter The Dragon. He also says that this duo were among a series of English language vehicles for Golden Harvest stars which didn’t look like typical Golden Harvest films which saw the company attempting to break into the west, and considers China o’ Brien THE defining straight-to-video martial arts movie. I think he’s right.

Theatrical Trailer [2 mins]



CHINA O’ BRIEN 2 [1990]



It’s two years later and Beaver Creek now has the lowest crime rate in the county, in large parr due to the efforts of China, who became Sheriff, and her friends Matt and Dakota. However, this is about to change because notorious drug smuggler Charlie Baskins has just escaped from prison and, after killing three people who contributed to his incarceration, is headed for Beaver Creek because there resides his former partner Frank Atkins who testified against him, and who has something that he wants. Frank’s daughter Jill is going out with Dakota, so it isn’t long before he’s involved and indeed kidnapped, but of course with China and Matt around he shouldn’t stay kidnapped for too long….

China O’ Brien 2 was shot back to back with China O’ Brien with the same crew and many of the same cast members, though some of them are now playing different people which is a little odd seeing how the look and feel of this follow-up is almost entirely the same as the original. Add this to the fact that the cast members would be shooting a acene from the first one on one day, than a acene from the second, then back to the first and so forth, and this must have been a strange filming experience for many; imagine you’ve been cast in different roles in both of the films and therefore have to alternate who you’ll playing on a day to day basis. So how does it compare with the first one? Well, in some ways it’s better but in some ways it’s not as good. The plot, conjured up by Clouse, Craig Clyde and James Hennessey, seems even more hastily put together, yet it has fewer little humorous touches, and I include careless and unintentionally funny touches in that, the production seeming smoother. The pacing is different too. The first one spaced the action out pretty smoothly and maintained a similar pace throughout; this one moves much of it to the final third, much of it is taken up by a big, major climax which partly atones for the disappointment in this area of film number one but partly doesn’t, for reasons that I’ll go into later on. This film moves slower for quite a while, allowing some suspense to be built, albeit not as much as was clearly intended. Unfortunately this fails to leave any room for development of our three leading characters, even if Dakota seems a bit different to before. This is a shame, because Rothrock, Norton and Cooke do settle into their parts more. And isn’t it disappointing that China and Conroy haven’t become a couple now, seeing as the first film seemed to set up expectations that they indeed would be? Unless of course they are but there wasn’t room in the script for us to be actually told this?

Anyway, we begin with a night time pursuit which is easily the most atmospheric scene in both movies, with evocative shots of two cars driving on a road. The police are chasing somebody and get out of their cars [one to each car oddly] to carry on the pursuit, but that somebody outwits them and ends up shooting them both dead. We here a radio broadcast which fills us in, the killer being Charlie Baskin, who served in Vietnam while smuggling drugs and fatally shot a customs officer. He was imprisoned, but escaped, partly due to a gun which his brother Kirk snuck into the prison, killing three guards in the process. Us learning all this very quickly certainly works in establishing the menace of this character. “I want my money back from Frankie?” he says when safe in a house with a bunch of helpers, including a girlfriend who, seeing as she usually appears scantily clad and is accompanied by saxophone on the soundtrack, initially seems like she was  put in just to add some cheesecake, though she does later become an active member of the operation. In Beaver Creek, a judge who’s running for major is gunned down in an extremely brief scene which looks like it may not have been completed, then another guy is killed in a more elaborate way. During a magician’s performance, somebody is put into a box, and is intended to disappear so the box can be reopened and show nobody in it, but instead somebody shoots a gun at the same time as the magician is shooting at the box, which is then opened to reveal a dead man with one of his eyes having been shot out! Talk about good timing! Then a third guy is shot by a stripper whom he certainly didn’t order into his office; the girl leans down to pick up a gun she’d placed behind her stereo, but surely she could have just shot him the minute she walked in? Ah well, some of us still don’t mind a gratuitous bit of sleaze, and unfortunately we never see this assassin character again. I was looking forward to a girl-on-girl fight.

All this is nonetheless good in telling us what our heroes are going to be up against. We first rejoined at a Fourth of July party where China is given an award for making the town so free of crime. “She’s not bad to look at either” remarks one guy and a little girl says to her “I want to be Sheriff just like you when I grow up”, which is a bit too much. Conroy leads three other kids in performing some martial arts moves on a stage, so it’s Dakota who first gets some real action when he saves a woman, whose face we curiously don’t properly see, from two muggers. “Just keeping the park clean” says Dakota in a manner similar to Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Dakota is interested in Jill, the daughter of a guy named Frank who’s rather scared that somebody might be “back”. On the next day China and Conroy visit the house of a repeat offender drunk who’s wrecked the bar and ripped a petrol pump out of the ground, which surely indicates that he’s ridiculously strong yet China is easily able to best him. She has much more on her plate when Baskin’s goons go to kidnap Frank and she has to come to the rescue. Frank reveals that he served with Baskins in Vietnam and testified against him, though there a bit more to it than that. Dakota visits the school where Jill is at and picks her up on his bike, and they’re soon kissing and arm in arm in a scene that can only come across as creepy today seeing as Cooke is clearly far older than Tiffany Soter who plays Jill, and the latter’s character goes to school. China still won’t carry a gun, cue for a flashback to the first fight in the first film which nicely fills out a few minutes so that new footage didn’t need to be shot, but she and her two kung fu fighting friends might have to step it up.

It’s some time before we get a proper fight involving our three, though of course Dakota gets to best those muggers, then Rothrock gets the chance to show her skills when China is trying to arrest that [terribly acted] drunk guy’ He just keeps running into things while she performs some cool moves amidst her avoidance, in a scene which is very Jackie Chan-like indeed and perhaps out of place here, but then again this would be normal in Hong Kong. Eventually some of the villains have Frank and family at gunpoint, but our three save the day, Rothrock doing impressive pole stuff here. Cooke is then given the most to do for a bit, showing off his incredible footwork in two brawls especially one where he has to fight a guy with his hands tied behind his back. Rothrock and Norton battle some goons in another outdoor factory where she gets to climb on a crane, then we get an extended, western-influenced climax where the town has to be defended against loads of bad guys. There are some great touches like two cleaver-wielding Chinese cooks coming out of the back of a restaurant to help out, but, even if one understands that far less time was spent on fights in America compared with Hong Kong, it’s disappointing that some people who can actually really fight this time face off are bested so quickly. A Chinese guy is nicely built up as a major villain, and then when it’s shown to us that he has Wolverine-like digits we’re really excited and think that this will lead to a cracking confrontation, but his fight is almost over before it begins. Then there’s the whip-wielding guy dressed up like Indiana Jones who wears a different jacket for his fight scene. However, the choreography might be slightly better than before, and with greater use of the environment. Again Cooke probably shines the most. Why didn’t he become a big star? It can’t have been because his acting is poor, seeing how that didn’t hamper the fame of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal.

An interesting element to the extremely cliched plot is the way that Frank isn’t a nice guy who tries to leave Beaver Creek and save his own skin while his wife and daughter have been kidnapped; his explanation for his actions that “you don’t understand, they’re as good as dead” not really being one thar we believe. Otherwise outside of the action, which this time employs some slow motion which is something that we’ve seen elsewhere from Robert Clouse, it’s all pretty workmanlike in both concept and execution, but certainly not actively poor, and Rothrock’s screen personality is stronger despite being obviously doubled more in her fight scenes, not to mention suddenly changing her clothes in one scene. Her appeal is rather wholesome without becoming sickly or preachy. She doesn’t need to be edgy, or be blatantly sexy even though she’s certainly pretty; no, she just focuses on being nice, which is a great message to put out. You can beat up bad guys, but still be a nice person, something that Chan also succeeded in projecting though he had the help of being very comedic. She could certainly have become a major star, but would she have been one today when such characters as she plays tend to be filtered though a Girl Power lens? Would she have wanted to be pushing a social/political agenda? Norton is a bit underused this time around. We could really have done with more scenes which showed the chemistry that he had with Rothrock. Yet the whole film is pretty darn good considering it’s a low budget DTV effort. Or does it just seem better these days because the general quality of movies has declined?

Returning composers David Wheatley and Paul Antonelli employ more score than before, guitar passages attempting to evoke the setting, though the dramatic stuff, which sometimes seems influenced by John Carpenter, tends to be somewhat underpowered, not really enhancing the action, especially as it’s usually rather quiet, though it can’t exactly be said to be detrimental. While never reaching the heights that you might hope for, China O’ Brien 2 achieves a decent balance between the Hong Kong and the American styles of action, and if it and its predecessor, which are good enough for us to wish that there’d have been further challenges for our three heroes to face,  had been cinema hits we may well have seen Hong Kong-influenced fighting in lots of American films way before The Matrix hit picture houses.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆



Brand new feature-length audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
Leeder and Venema both feel that this sequel has the edge over the original, even though they still indulge in a few chuckles at the film’s expense, while Leeder asking Venema if he’s ever worn turquoise is a good example of the light tone of their banter. He’s doesn’t consider the villainous element to be very good, and tells us that Rothrock refused to do any sequels because Golden Harvest had treated her badly, though it’s Venema who tells us more in this particular track, from explaining why the picture often looks a bit faded on the edges, to pointing out a synthesiser track which turned up a lot of times elsewhere, to telling us the cost of living in Utah – which is sixty-four percent of the national average!

Brand new audio commentary by Frank Djeng
Djeng didn’t do a track on the first film, but at the start of this one explains that this one will cover both, and that he elected to do it on this one because he thinks it’s better, as does Rothrock. Being less scene specific than the above pair means that he easily discuss both movies. He’s more prone to biographies, though not as much as he used to be and always gets them done quickly, and tells us that Rothrock’s part was originally intended for a male actor, points out some added scenes that were shot after filming had supposedly finished to add more action, and says that China was the inspiration for a character in the Mortal Kombat game.

Select-scene commentary by Cynthia Rothrock and Frank Djeng [23 mins]
Rothrock and Djeng return to discuss the quarry fight and the final battle. Rothrock can’t remember whether the former was shot in Los Angeles after the main shooting was done or not, but does say that it was shot in a day like most scenes like this, which is astonishing really when you know how long they’d spend doing them in Hong Kong, and she also points out where Cooke kicked someone in the head for real.

“Enter Dakota” – Keith Cooke interview  [27 mins]
“I wanted to learn how to stand up for myself” says Cooke as his main reason for learning martial arts in this interview which contains some interesting points, such as Cooke not having to actually read for his role, the stuntman who he kicked being totally fine about it, and the “just keeping the park clean” line being added by Clouse. Most excitingly, Rothrock once tried and failed to get the rights to make a China O’ Brien 3 but there’s now a chance that it could happen. Bring it on! And what is up with how young he looks too; seemingly all three of the leads in these films have found a fountain of youth somewhere.

James Mudge on “China O’Brien” – interview with filmmaker and critic James Mudge [16 mins]
Mudge spends much of the time discussing Clouse’s career, which was fine for me as I didn’t know all of what he’d done; I’m certainly now interested in checking out his two “revenge of nature” efforts Deadly Eyes and The Pack. Rothrock’s early career is also touched on, with Yes, Madam joining China O’ Brien as a film where Rothrock’s part was originally male, and we’re reminded that the west wasn’t quite ready for such action when this duo came out, seeing as very little of it was seen after for a while.

Theatrical Trailer [2 mins]



Limited-edition O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (2000 Copies)

1080p HD presentations on Blu-ray from brand new 4K restorations of the original film elements
Both films have a very vibrant and detailed picture which bely their age and budget. There’s not even much as the [expected] softness, the restorations being generally very sharp. No damage was visible to my eyes. Excellent!

Uncompressed original English mono (China O’Brien) and stereo (China O’Brien 2) audio tracks

Optional English SDH

A Limited-edition collector’s booklet featuring new essays by James Oliver and film scholar Eddie Falvey (2000 Copies)



Even when they started getting into the martial arts movie business, I never would have expected that Eureka would release films like these two. Yet I’m glad they are, because the “China O’ Brien”s are really quite good and certainly great fun. Folks more used to the Hong Kong style will find stuff to appreciate. Added value including commentaries by the usual suspects contributes to a fine set. Recommended! 

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About Dr Lenera 1980 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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