Cult Movies: The China O’Brien movies were martial arts star Cynthia Rothrock’s finest moments

Ralph revisits these brawl-packed VHS favourites from the 1990s which have just been re-issued on Blu-ray

Cynthia Rothrock in action as China O'Brien
Cynthia Rothrock in action

THE China O’Brien movies positively reek of early-90s video shops to me. The very mention of those two murky martial arts epics is enough to throw me right back to the well-stocked shelves of my local rental emporium where, for reasons I’ve never really contemplated, dodgy kung fu ‘classics’ often outnumbered big screen blockbusters - so much so that I can practically smell the cheap plastic boxes the tapes came in just thinking about it.

Thrillingly, Eureka Classics have just released both volumes of the China O’Brien experience on a remastered new Blu-ray set and I’m able to relive my childhood once again, pungent B-movie odours and all.

Both movies star Cynthia Rothrock - a diminutive but hugely talented martial arts exponent who rose to fame as the 80s petered out in Hong Kong productions like Yes, Madam and Lady Reporter - and both will throw you back to the era of mullets and hi-top trainers with ease.

That they come with an array of era-capturing extras only sweetens the deal even further.

The powers that be in martial arts land clearly saw Rothrock as the next big cross-over star for their movies, the elusive ‘next Bruce Lee’ that they’d all been looking for since Enter The Dragon made the genre viable for western audiences in 1973.

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Cynthia Rothrock stars as former cop turned kung-fu crimebuster in China O'Brien
Cynthia Rothrock stars as the former cop turned kung-fu crimebuster

Attempts to score a US hit for the great Jackie Chan failed until Rumble In The Bronx in 1995, so the idea that a good looking, white leading lady who was based in America but known to Asian cinema-goers might do the box office business must have seemed very appealing at the time.

They lined her up with an American director, Robert Clouse, and China O’Brien was the result. That it and its carbon copy follow-up failed to set the world alight hardly mattered, nor that the films didn’t even make it to Western cinema screens, gathering an audience through home video instead.

These are beautiful little time capsules that reflect a vibrant time for martial arts cinema. Shot in the States, in English, with mostly American crews, they come across as very Western-flavoured fayre at times, but that only adds to their nostalgic appeal today.

A fight scene from the China O'Brien movies
Both movies offer a mix of Western and Eastern-inspired fight action

In the first film, we meet Lori ‘China’ O’Brien (Rothrock), a martial arts-enhanced cop who resigns from the force after a tragic accident and retreats to her old hometown of Beaver Creek. There, she faces off with a ruthless crime lord called Sommers (Steven Kirby) with predictably action-packed results.

In part two, shot at the same time, the peace and quiet of her home town is disturbed by a visiting drug lord (Harlow Marks) which results in, you’ve guessed it, action-packed chaos.

The stories barely matter here, though: it’s all about the action, and both films certainly deliver on that front. As Golden Harvest co-productions, they offer a sometimes messy mix of Western and Eastern fighting styles, but Rothrock is superb throughout, high-kicking her way to martial arts heaven.

They might disappoint the hardcore Hong Kong action fan a little, but for those of us who remember the VHS release, they’re a pure time-travelling thrill.