China O'Brien 1 and 2 [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (30th April 2024).
The Film

"The inimitable martial arts superstar Tiger Claws' Cynthia Rothrock stars in two of the most gloriously entertaining films of her career!"

After shooting and killing a teenage boy while saving one of her students from an ambush, Kung fu-teaching police officer China O'Brien (Tiger Claws' Cynthia Rothrock) turns in her badge and quits the big city for her home town of Beaver Creek, Utah where her father (David Blackwell) is the sheriff. Upon returning, China discovers that things have changed for the worst, with her father fighting a losing battle against the widespread corrupt operations of wealthy Kurt Sommers (Steven Kerby) who has powerful Judge Godar (Will C. Hazlett) in his pocket along with one of O'Brien's own deputies Lickner (3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain's Patrick Adamson). China sees first hand how Sommers' influence cripples her father's attempts at maintaining law and order; but, when Lickner overhears Sheriff O'Brien and loyal deputy Tyler (Chad Walker) discussing intentions to bring in the feds and present tangible evidence of Sommers' connections to the town's drug trade, prostitution, and illegal land grabs, both men are killed by car bombs. Learning that Lickner has been made interim sheriff and that the town plans to hold a special election in five days, a defiant China announces her plans to run for sheriff. She has the support of the town's older population as she publicly calls out Sommers' cronies but while she is more than capable of physically defending herself, she will need extra help to combat Sommers' machinations and intimidation tactics before election day. Fortunately, she has reconnected with high school boyfriend Matt (City Hunter's Richard Norton) who joined the Special Forces before coming back to teach athletics at the local high school, and Taekwondo-kicking motorcycle racer Dakota (Mortal Kombat's Keith Cooke) who believes Sommers had something to do with the supposedly accidental death of his mother.

Although filmed at the same time and released just six months after the first film, the sequel is set two years later with Beaver Creek one of the safest towns in the state and China settled into her job which consists primarily of rounding up serial drunks when they commit property damage at the local bar. Matt is back teaching martial arts at the school, and deputized Dakota occasionally throws a kick to keep the parks clean of scum. Unfortunately, China's old school friend Annie (Tricia Quai) has returned to town with her daughter Jill (Tiffany Soter) and new husband Frank (The Stand's Frank Magner) who happens to be in witness protection after providing evidence to that put drug smuggler C.Z. Baskin (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers' Harlow Marks) in prison. Baskin has recently escaped and has taken out the prosecutor, judge, and cop responsible for putting him away. Frank is a special case since he cleared out Baskin's accounts of five million dollars before testifying against him. When China, Matt, and Dakota brutally put down the attempt of Baskin's men to abduct Frank and his family, Baskin and his team of special fighters invade the town and cut off all communication to the outside.

Although American martial artist Rothrock had moved up from a small role in Sammo Hung's epic Millionaires' Express (along side Norton) to secondary leads in Yes, Madam! opposite Michelle Yeoh, Magic Crystal opposite Andy Lau (and Norton again), Righting Wrongs opposite Yuen Biao, and The Inspector Wears Skirts opposite Sibelle Hu to a leading role as the Lady Reporter and had already made her English-speaking debut in No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder, China O'Brien was Rothrock's actual introduction to the English-speaking audiences since Hong Kong action had not yet found a foothold stateside. One of several attempts in the seventies and eighties by Golden Harvest to expand their market to the West with an English-language production, the film reunited the studio with director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub who had been trying with and without Golden Harvest to replicate the success of their Bruce Lee vehicle Enter the Dragon (their previous joint venture with the studio having been Battle Creek Brawl with Jackie Chan), and their approach with Rothrock feels more like a Walking Tall-esque variation on seventies martial arts flicks than the "Girls with Guns" genre with which Rothrock had become associated in Hong Kong.

Scripted by Clouse from a story by Weintraub's daugther Sandra Weintraub – who had previously scripted the Golden Harvest/Weintraub Tom Selleck vehicle High Road to China and would later write and direct the Hong Kong action documentary Deadliest Art: The Best of the Martial Arts Films – China O'Brien lacks the unpredictability and absurd tonal shifts of Hong Kong action cinema of the time and just plods along narratively. Shot in Utah to take advantage of tax breaks – the same sort of arrangement exploited by the likes of the Halloween franchise with a pair of back-to-back sequels, Filmirage's vacation away from the East Coast with Troll 2, and Philip Yordan like Cry Wilderness and the insterstial footage that pulled together three unfinished films into the anthology Night Train to Terror – the film's sets and locations not only look threadbare but the film strangely lacks much in the way of an attractive scenic backdrop despite being filmed around Park City (the Hong Kong action films often made do with any grabbed location with the fewest gawkers and could be makeshift with set detail but they moved at enough of a clip to chuckle at the cheapness and move on). What charm it has is in the fight scenes, photographed and edited with far less panache than Clouse's Eastern contemporaries but no less physically-impressive as Rothrock, Norton, and Cooke get to play to their fighting strengths, and the action is at its best when Clouse just lets the camera run. The final confrontation with the main villain is a bit of a letdown; but then again, he is the film's least interesting character. The dramatic elements are best conveyed non-verbally with the three leads conveying warmth but each a little wooden at this early point in their careers when it comes to emoting.

Despite being partially shot in tandem with the first film, the sequel – scripted from Sandra Weintraub's story by Craig Clyde and James Hennessy who also wrote the female softball team versus backwoods psychos flick Blood Games before finding their niche in Hallmark Channel pablum – is an overall slicker work with a bit more urgency in the plot, more plausible danger, actual suspense, and overall better fight sequences. Absurdities still abound like the opening ten minutes detailing Baskin's revenge on three of his victims including a prosecutor assassinated in a crowd that cannot be bothered to take cover when he hits the ground, the killing of the judge during a magic trick that seems to be incredibly fortuitous, and the ex-cop who gets to sit through an entire striptease before being blown away (the sort of character that would be more prominent in any other exploitation film). The sequence in which Frank goes to ostensibly turn over the cash to Baskin at a rock crushing plant to save his family and Dakota while China, Matt, and a new deputy canon fodder infiltrate the hideout culminates in such an exciting series of fights including Dakota literally beating an opponent with his hands tied behind his back that it is truly shocking that there is still a half-hour of running time left.

This third act threatens to kill the momentum, but this portion consists of a number of reshoots to beef up the action including a bunch of special fighters brought in by Baskin (with signature weapons like a bullwhip and makeshift Enter the Dragon claws) who are hilariously put down with ease, a pair of clever-wielding Asian chefs who burst out of the kitchen of a greasy spoon, and a pre-Tae Bo Billy Blanks. Both films feature a maternal figure taken out by a stray bullet, and both sidestep moral complications by having the main villain suddenly gunned down by one of his surviving victims rather than China, although it is far more satisfying in the sequel due as much to what the character has gone through but also because Marks' Baskin is more menacing even if the guy whose only other cinematic work of note is being thrown into power lines by Michael Myers largely stands around during the fight scenes. Although the films sold well in the direct-to-video market domestically and abroad, they would turn out to be the last of Golden Harvest's films with Rothrock who would go on to work in both Hong Kong and American independent action films (including more collaborations with Norton).


Although both films were shot and finished in 1988, China O'Brien and China O'Brien II did not find release until 1990, with Imperial Entertainment in the U.S. and Entertainment in Video in the U.K. releasing them direct-to-video. The films were also went direct-to-video in Hong Kong where they were not dubbed into Cantonese but presented in English with Chinese subtitles (the shorter running times quoted for the Category II-rated Hong Kong laserdiscs are more likely due to PAL masters being utilized rather than censorship as the content barely earns an R-rating while the BBFC has always been particular about martial arts films and exotic weaponry despite very little actual bloodshed here. The video master of the first film found release on DVD in the U.S. while both films could be round in as a non-anamorphic letterboxed double feature in France (albeit with forced French subtitles).

Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-rays of both films – also available from Eureka in a 4K UltraHD set with Dolby Vision – come from new 4K restorations. Thanks to relatively flat lighting and largely static photography, both films look sharp and vibrant with healthy skin tones. Credits opticals for the first film are on black intercut with action scenes, so only some slow motion during the car bomb scene and the closing credits look degraded compared to the rest of the film. The second film's opening credits are printed on background action, so the blacks of the night-for-night sequence look far duller and flatter than the truer blacks of later night scenes in the film. Compared to the washed-out SD video masters, the 1080p encodes reveal a wealth of detail often to the film's detriment including the gray make-up applied to a corpse left in China's trunk as a warning, the halfhearted spray paint tagging of drug den, the cheap construction of the Beaver Creek Inn long before the climactic brawl, the barest of set decoration in some locations like a private detective's office or a luxurious corporate office repurposed for FBI headquarters, and the plaque awarded to China by the mayor that misspells her surname.


China O'Brien features its original mono mix while China O'Brien II features a stereo mix – both in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono – but most of the stereophonic separation of the sequel goes to the percussive synth scoring of Paul F. Antonelli and David Wheatley (who had both collaborated on Sandra Weintraub's directorial effort The Women's Club. Dialogue is clear enough that the amount of ADR is doubly apparent. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.


China O'Brien is accompanied by an audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema who speculate on whether the project originated as another attempt for Jackie Chan to crossover to the United States, noting the similarities between the film's concept and the later Sammo Hung American TV series Martial Law. They provide background on Clouse, Weintraub, and the cast as well as interesting figures like action choreographer Nijel who had previously worked with Clouse and Weintraub in Battle Creek Brawl and Force Five (where Norton first worked with them), as well as revealing that the singer behind the very eighties ballad "Desert Storm" billed as "Tess Makes Good" was none other than Tori Amos. They discuss the Utah shooting, the quality of the acting by a lot of people who never worked again (or had worked before but not after the film), make some deserved digs at "power mullets" and also reveal that Rothrock wanted Mang Hoi or Corey Yuen to choreograph the action but that one or both wanted to direct the film as well.

There is also a select-scene commentary by actress and martial artist Cynthia Rothrock and Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng, NY Asian Film Festival (9:17) in which she recalls acclimating to the Utah altitude, Cooke breaking his finger during a promotional appearance necessitating not only surgery but writing in a hand injury in the flashback. She also discusses the difference between Hong Kong choreography and the American stunt team.

Rothrock also appears in the interview "Made in China" (22:17) in which she covers some of the same information but also recalls Clouse not offering much direction in what was her second English-language film other than "say it this way" as well as working with the U.S. stunt crew and extras with no fighting experience leading to her breaking a finger and having to punch with the broken digit extended in some shots. She also recalls there being not enough takes, with most fight sequences shot in a day rather than the weeks on some scenes in Hong Kong films, as well as safety issues including the death of the pyrotechnics supervisor.

An interview with actor and martial artist Richard Norton (49:51) was conducted by A.J. Richardi and Gavin Kelley of The Martial Arts Mania Podcast specifically for this release and covers his interest in martial arts and the opportunities to study it in Australia, his work as a bodyguard, getting into movies, and meeting Rothrock. He discusses the film's attempt to fuse American and Hong Kong action, and his own attempt to fight with the Special Forces experience of his character in mind, and how Nijel's choreography conveyed separate fighting styles for himself, Rothrock, and Cooke.

"Leon Hunt on China O'Brien" (21:52) is an interview with the author of "Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger" who focuses more on the careers of Weintraub and Clouse – who he feels "lucked out" with Enter the Dragon while noting as others have in the set's extras that Clouse had developed a reputation for being able to direct fights solely based on the earlier film Darker Than Amber – and how the latter's by-the-numbers direction gives the first film the feel of a TV movie pilot and the sequel like a later episode with Baskin likened to a "villain of the week."

The first disc closes with the film's theatrical trailer (2:20).

China O'Brien II is accompanied by another audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema who note that while the sequel seems better thought out than the first film and it has some of the rapid tonal changes of Hong Kong action films, inconsistencies still abound like no squibs in the various shootings during the opening sequences and then tons of bloody squibs during the later kills or various continuity errors like Rothrock's costume changing in between successive scenes suggesting that they were part of the later Los Angeles reshoots (along with the odd geography conveyed within what are supposed to be single sequences).

The film also features an audio commentary by Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng, NY Asian Film Festival who elected to do one commentary discussing both films over the second film which he feels is the better of the two. He manages to both deliver his thoughts and provide information on the first film while keeping up with the onscreen action of the second film, noting the influences of Walking Tall – reportedly Weintraub read about Buford Pusser and thought it would be a good idea but with a female lead – and the western (dropping the information that Rothrock recently crowd-funded her own action western Black Creek). In addition to discussing the different fighting styles of Rothrock, Norton, and Cooke, he also identifies members of the Hong Kong stunt team and points out actors who appeared in the first film as different characters including choreographer Nijel who played China's fellow kung fu teacher Jonesey in the first film – as well as a flashback in the second film – but also pops up in sunglasses as one of Baskin's fighters.

The sequel disc also contains another select-scene Commentary by actress Cynthia Rothrock and Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng, NY Asian Film Festival (13:35) in which the actress recalls that due to Clouse's decision to shoot scenes from both films when shared locations were available, the cast had a hard time keeping track of what scenes were for which film apart from the fight scenes. She also recalls that the production insisted on more safety after the accident with the pyrotechnician and had her and Norton doubled for the driving stunts. He also notes a deficit with both films is the lack of a satisfactory final confrontation between Rothrock and the final villains (who he describes as "old white dudes") while also suggesting that the film more so than the first does suggest that it could have been a series, comparing the atmosphere of the town and its characters to the likes of Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks.

In "Enter Dakota" (27:50), actor and martial artist Cooke recalls his love of martial arts movies, studying and training, being able to trade his acting school tuition by teaching martial arts classes, and being regularly featured in KungFuMagazine whose editor recommended him to Weintraub. He discusses working with Rothrock and Norton, idolizing Clouse, and working with the local stunt performers (including an accidental real kick to the face of one of them during the diner fight which does indeed look painful onscreen).

In "James Mudge on China O'Brien" (16:13), Mudge focuses on Clouse and his attempt to replicate his Enter the Dragon success, the intersection of blaxploitation and Kung fu, his "when animals attack" films – including Deadly Eyes which was a non-martial arts collaboration with Golden Harvest, and the damage Clouse did to his own reputation by reworking the unfinished Game of Death years after Lee's death (a move which actually seems like an attempt to cash in on the other Brucesploitation films of the time).

The disc also features the film's theatrical trailer (2:10).


The first pressing of 2,000 copies includes an O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grιgory Sacrι, a reversible poster, and a collector's booklet featuring new essays by James Oliver and film scholar Eddie Falvey.


The reunion of Golden Harvest and the Enter the Dragon producing/directing team of Fred Weintraub and Robert Clouse launches Cynthia Rothrock into the West with the China O'Brien films that feel more like Walking Tall than the "girls with guns" Hong Kong action with which she was associated.


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