COMPILED BY ERIX ANTOINE
Hello good people…
Cynthia Rothrock doesn’t get enough love. Oh, she does have a hell of a cult following and she’s huge in Asia, but you rarely see the mainstream action community speak of her in the same breath as they do people like Chuck Norris and Van Damme.
This week, we decided to finally remedy that.
Stallone is still busy at work gathering the cast for The Expendables 2. Maybe there’s still time to slip her in?
CYNTHIA ROTHROCK – AN EPIC APPRECIATION BY KAIN 424
The Scene: A busy Hong Kong airport.
The Plot: The police have been tipped off that someone is attempting to use a the passport of a stolen foreign officer to leave the country. When the suspect is located and confronted, things turn violent. Though surrounded by numerous officers who are all armed, the suspect fights his way through until he manages to grab a hostage: a small Caucasian woman in conventional business attire.
With the suspect cornered and desperate, the situation is at a lethal standstill. That is, until the hostage, a short, white woman in a business suit, elbows her attacker in the sternum and kicks her foot up over her shoulder and into the man’s face.
The woman then proceeds to beat the suspect into submission with an impressive array of Kung Fu skills. Especially impressive for a foreigner. As it turns out, this woman is a U.K. agent, assigned to investigate the murder of the very man of whose passport her attacker was using.
For much of the world, this is how Cynthia Rothrock was introduced to them, in the 1985 Hong Kong actioner Yes, Madam. It was my first experience as well, and I was immediately hooked. While Milla Jovovich and Angelina Jolie had model looks, high budget movies with A-list casts and the ability to defeat anything the computer effects could imagine for them to fight, I recognized the real deal the first time I saw it.
Cynthia Rothrock was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1957. An active girl, she was active in dance and sports until finally finding her way into the martial arts around 1970. Once in, Rothrock was hooked and found in herself a competitiveness she had previously not known. This led to her entering into tournaments and finally winning the World Karate Championship in Forms and Weapons in 1981, a title which she would hold, undefeated, until she retired into
Along her route to fame in the martial arts community, Rothrock studied in Tang Soo Do, Tae Kwon Do, Eagle Claw Kung Fu, Wu Shu and Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. The variety of her forms kept her diverse, and with her 5’3” frame, she made quite the spectacle on the tournament circuit. After appearing on magazine covers and joining the West Coast Demonstration Team, Cynthia was invited along to audition for a part in an odd-couple police film being developed by the Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest.
Interestingly, the film that became Yes, Madam took a couple years to get made. After winning the 1983 Miss Malaysia beauty pageant, Michelle Yeoh was picked up by producers (for D & B Films) Sammo Hung and Dickson Poon and was given minor roles in films for a couple years before being set as Rothrock’s partner. With Yeoh’s background being primarily in dance, it was up to Rothrock and director/martial arts instructor Corey Yuen to make the fights and action work. And naturally, being the gweilo of the film, Rothrock is treated as the edgier and feistier of the two female leads.
Cynthia‘s not a bad-looking woman, but she’s a short, stoutly proportioned little fighting machine with a cartoon voice. And while I think her acting has only improved since her not-so-humble beginnings, it’s unlikely she’ll be winning awards anytime soon. Still, along with her unofficial titles as the “Queen of Video” and the “Queen of Martial Arts”, Rothrock developed an interesting on-screen persona. She’s not the long-legged seductress or the virginal “last girl” type, but something all her own. She’s a driven, nearly cultured, but not quite world-weary
woman. A bit business, with a little play and a lot of practice. And while her best years were clearly her first few in the business, I like to think she deserves a spot in the pantheon of action heroes right next to the likes of Van Damme, Steven Seagal and the rest.
One of the more interesting aspects of Rothrock’s early persona was her subversion of the female cliche. As demonstrated by her introductory scene, where Cynthia goes from beleaguered hostage to an officer detaining a suspect, this subversion is integral to how we are supposed to see her. She is the very definition of the strong woman, dressed for success and wholly competent with no need of assistance. Cynthia Rothrock is the anti-victim. Even if, by some chance, she is victimized, the victimizer will eventually be at her mercy.
Yes, Madam is an interesting beast of a film. Partly because so little of it works (the story, the villains, the “comic relief”, etc), but mostly because what does work (the two female leads and the fights) outshines everything else. It was originally conceived with males in the lead (well, at least the role Rothrock was given), but much was changed after Cynthia signed on. Corey Yuen directs, and his flair for action is a large part of what makes everything that works actually work as well as it does, and one can’t escape the notion that Sammo Hung’s involvement also
helped in this area as well. But what ultimately hurts the film, and something that would haunt Rothrock’s entire career, is the inability of the filmmakers to just let the ladies have their show.
Whether due to fears about her film presence, the female marketability, or poor choices on the part of Rothrock herself, it must be noted that she almost never headlines her own films. Even when given the principle role (The Blonde Fury, City Cops, Outside The Law, etc.), Cynthia finds herself among an ensemble cast of sorts. She is always a standout in these movies, but the failure to let her just go it alone usually hinders the impact of her role. And while her team-ups with other B-movie male counterparts Don Wilson, Jeff Wincott, and most notably Richard Norton (whom she began working with on the surprisingly fun sci-fi/fantas/action flick The Magic Crystal) can indeed be fun, I still find myself disappointed that she doesn’t just get to do her own thing most of the time.
Yes, Madam is bogged down by a trio of characters (one of whom is actually played by Tsui Hark) whose primary contribution to the film is being comic relief. They are, in fact, humanoid MacGuffins, but annoying ones. They serve to extend the plot but really only test the audience’s patience as their childish tactics (ok, fight choreographer Mang Hoi can be funny on occasion) serve little more than stalling the film between the action scenes we came to see. Even if Michelle Yeoh is a lackluster Dirty Harry type and Rothrock is given zero characterization, it’s these two women we came to see and they are magnetic enough when given the screen time they so desperately deserve. This is the only real problem I have with Yes, Madam, but it’s one that ended up haunting Rothrock her entire career.
While she is often toned down, held back or even marginalized in these movies, there is no doubt a certain amount of fun to be had in watching Cynthia Rothrock kick ass. With her macho female intensity and scorpion kicking, she’s as great as (and sometimes better than) her male action counterparts. She’s especially great as the drill instructor in The Inspector Wears Skirts, even if it is a bit inexplicable as to why her character sticks around to the end. But no matter, her fight with Jeff Falcon (who she takes on again in The Blonde Fury) is probably the
highlight of the movie.
She also features superbly in the Yuen Biao actioner Righting Wrongs (sometimes called Above The Law, but should never be confused with Steven Seagal’s debut), where she has an amazing battle against fellow female martial artist Karen Sheperd. In fact, Righting Wrongs marks an interesting high point in Rothrock’s career, where her immense popularity in Hong Kong actually caused the inclusion of an alternate, more fan-liked, ending for her character. The movie, occasionally “ghost directed” by Sammo Hung for many of the fight scenes, is Cynthia’s own personal favorite and features what many consider her best work (I
don’t agree, but can certainly understand why people say as much). Though second-billed next to Yuen Biao, Rothrock is a major force in the movie’s plot and provides an apt “in” for western audiences. I think the movie ranks high as an action effort on it’s own merits, and Cynthia only adds to that.
In one of my favorite movies of the era, The Millionaire’s Express, Rothrock pops up ever so briefly to fight Sammo Hung. Her presence in the film always brings a smile to my face and adds just the right amount of bad-ass touch to an already zany little Western (or maybe we should call it an “Eastern”). And while I have bemoaned her constant appearance in these ensemble flicks, I would be remissed if I did not mention that I adore most of these movies. If Cynthia Rothrock was born to be a side character, she does it very well. I just think she could be doing so much more.
As a dominant force in most of her movies, it’s nice to see how much charm and humor she can possess. In fact, I am often surprised with how little humor female action stars seem to be willing to imbue their film characters. Rothrock doesn’t really have that problem. Whether it’s setting a track on fire to teach some stubborn women how to run faster in The Inspector Wears Skirts or asking a police officer if he likes his killers “well done” after incinerating one in Angel Of Fury, Rothrock is willing to go there and it’s nice. And while her Asian output skirted the issue of her sexuality, it was more than willing to play with the issue of her gender for the sake of humor as seen in Yes, Madam during the climactic fight sequence where Rothrock feigns (or does she?) intense pain after being kicked in the shins. Cynthia happily plays along.
Occasionally, she can go the other way and add too much humor, as in No Retreat, No Surrender 2, the non-related follow-up to Corey Yuen’s American made Karate Kid rip-off. There, while still giving a couple good fight scenes, Rothrock’s character Terry the pilot is given a bunch of the worst put-downs ever committed to film. Adding to her nostalgia-killing 80s outfits are her sad excuses for insults like, “You guys are all suckin’ up flies!” and “I thought all snakes shed their skin.” That last one doesn’t even make sense in the movie. Long after her
fight between herself and Matthias Hues fades from your memory, you’ll remember hearing some of the most juvenile stuff you’ve ever heard a 30 year-old woman say.
After spending the 80s popping up in various Hong Kong actioners, she made her debut Stateside in the 1990 Robert Clouse film, China O’Brien (yes, No Retreat, No Surrender 2, was sort of an “American” movie but it was produced by Golden Harvest). A loose remake of the Joe Don Baker classic, Walking Tall, China was the film which introduced a great many Americans to Cynthia. And while it’s mostly a team-up film with both her and Norton, it’s not altogether terrible but also not especially good. Clouse isn’t quite cut out for the kung fu genre, despite a great deal of previous efforts (ranging from the surprisingly watchable Bruce Lee-led Enter The Dragon to the generic and woeful waste of Jackie Chan in The Big Brawl), and so depressingly pits three excellent martial artists (joining Rothrock and Norton is a showstealing Keith Cooke) against hordes of untrained rednecks (which sounds awesome, but somehow isn’t).
China O’Brien (as well as its sequel) failed to connect with mainstream audiences and, with Sylvester Stallone leaving a proposed project that would have had the two pairing up (another team-up, though this would have at least gained her some mainstream attention), Rothrock was left to dither in the B-movie market. Here, she turned up in some fun smaller roles, like that of the antagonist in the Corey Haim action/comedy Fast Getaway.
Remarkably it was here, amid a mostly forgotten romp that Cynthia began to openly explore her sexuality onscreen, for better or worse. As in City Cops, she uses her sexuality for the purposes of comic relief. But here she practically rapes her criminal cohort, and when he dares to ask for seconds in a later scene, Rothrock twists the poor man’s arm and declares, “When I want it, I’ll take it!”
Rather than continuing on with this in a comedic fashion, we then see Cynthia become something of a rape avenger in movies like the cliche-ridden, but ultimately pretty decent Lady Dragon (another Norton pairing) and the similarly themed Lady Dragon 2, where she plays a different character under pretty much the same circumstances. Rather than being content to play the sexy heroine right off, Rothrock begins by using her gender to tease the audience and bait the antagonists of her films. This “teasing” gets more and more apparent, finally
culminating in a couple full-blown and cinematically erotic sex scenes with Kurt McKinney in Sworn To Justice.
When watching her Hong Kong films, it’s actually a bit difficult to imagine Cynthia Rothrock in such a scenario, but as I said, she spent half a decade leading up to it (though largely in non-erotic rape sequences… I didn’t say it wasn’t a frustrated exploration of her on-screen sexuality) so I can’t say I’m too surprised… though it’s still about as awkward as the infamous shower scene between Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone in The Specialist.
It’s also around this time that Rothrock’s acting takes a very sudden sharp turn for the better. Though she is serviceable in her Hong Kong movies, I’ve always found it funny how hard it is for Rothrock to deliver simple lines of dialog without having to be dubbed. In Millionaire’s Express she manages to mess up just saying, “Yes. Yes!” How the hell is that even possible? But the transition made between Undefeatable and Portrait In Red (a.k.a. Fatal Passion) is stunning.
Rothrock has only a minor role in Portrait, but it’s notable for two reasons: she does not perform any martial arts and she delivers a simple yet entirely effective performance. Rothrock plays the distressed but weary girlfriend of the main character, who’s infidelity is leading to the end of their relationship. Cynthia’s entire performance is pretty much wrapped up in one sequence in a bedroom, where she calmly reflects on the nature of their relationship and that it is essentially over. Rather than overact (or worse, not act at all), she reins it in here, and reacts callously but manages to convey a sense of inner hurt. While the film around this scene is wacky but typical, in a very 90s “artsy” kind of way, this lone moment of humanity stands out and marks a nice change of pace for Cynthia. It’s interesting to note that her next film (the Sally Field rape-avenger flick An Eye For An Eye) would be a serious drama, and again with her in a minor role, but also a very effective one. I think Rothrock would’ve made for a great star in that
one. Oh well.
It’s interesting to reflect on a career full of would-have-beens and should-have-beens. Aside from the previously mentioned missed opportunities for more mainstream exposure, Cynthia famously missed out on the role Michelle Yeoh eventually nabbed in Police Story III: Supercop. A major comeback for Yeoh, the role may have given Rothrock a major boost in Asia and a gradual serious following when Chan later hit it big in the States with Rumble In The Bronx. Unfortunately, Chan suffered a serious injury on another film and filming was delayed, resulting in a scheduling difference that put Cynthia elsewhere and the part had to be recast.
Always in the right place at the wrong time, Rothrock would head toward the new millennium in a half dozen bad dtv films and a fun but ultimately underseen and largely thankless turn on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The following year would see her appear in The Dukes Of Hazard: Reunion! But we’re better off not delving into that one.
Truth be told, I think there is often a so-bad-it’s-good quality to a lot of her movies. The flat villains, crayon-written scripts and slow choreography do little to suggest otherwise. Even when there’s something going on that might indicate the need for more emotional involvement (the rape theme is a frequent one in these), silliness abounds with no concern for restraint. Undefeatable is a grand example of this, with some great imagery and capable fighters, but no hold on tone and context. The final fight is about the most ridiculous thing you’ll ever see in your life. I have no idea if it’s supposed to be as funny as it is.
It was clear from China O’Brien that Rothrock’s U.S. output was of a lesser stock than its Hong Kong ilk. While occasionally acrobatic, Cynthia had to make due with cheap productions, less-than enthusiastic crews, and WAY less stunt-work. The choreographers for these films had little experience in martial arts films compared to the Asian crews and these movies suffer for it. Only very rarely do they rise enough above mid-level half-assery to become somewhat entertaining.
Martial Law (starring Chad McQueen) is decent at times, atrocious at others. McQueen is barely a lead, despite what the film keeps trying to tell us, and Rothrock easily rips the show out from under him. Sadly, her lack of screentime makes this more of a bad thing. But mostly Martial Law is the David Carradine show, and he chews up the scenery and spits it out at the bad actors surrounding him. The sequel is a serious improvement, even going so far as to replace Chad with Jeff Wincott, who fares much better in terms of both charisma and martial arts prowess. Cynthia provides good chemistry with Wincott, though her role is more that of a sidekick (no pun intended, I swear) than anything else.
Angel The Kickboxer (released in the U.S. as Honor and Glory) features some pretty good fights, but ends up being an overall terrible movie. Still, it does give her a little more in terms of being a singular entity within the film. Though again an ensemble piece, the other actors/fighters contribute far less personality and charisma to the final product than Cynthia.
I really enjoyed Tiger Claws II, despite being less than thrilled with the bland first film and the terrible third. It’s essentially Mortal Kombat, and since Rothrock was the inspiration for that game’s Sonia Blade, having them rip it off was just as wonderful as it was tacky.
But her American output is usually watchable only when paired with Richard Norton. A fellow Caucasian who made it big in Hong Kong at a time when whites were mostly delegated to villain roles (and he played plenty of those), Norton and Rothrock had an easy chemistry, which they used to great effect in several fun pairings. Lady Dragon is one of the few times the two played adversaries and is a pretty good effort for both of them, while I’m particularly fond of the Rage And Honor series.
The new millennium saw her pop up in the “ok” Redemption, but fans would be better off skipping that one as she is particularly wasted. Outside The Law seemed to show Rothrock going in a new and decent direction with her dtv career, but then she just popped up for a couple seconds in Lost Bullet (seriously… like an extra) and ended her three decade-long career bitterly in Sci-Fighter (a.k.a. Xtreme Fighter). Maybe it’s fitting that Cynthia Rothrock, who seemed to embody everything about wasted potential, unrealized action movie talent, and
bad luck, would end her legacy as a half-developed love interest in a bad Matrix rip-off playing second fiddle to Don “The Dragon” Wilson.
Well, we’ll always have Hong Kong.
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THIS WEEK’S MOVIE SHOWCASE
NATHAN WISHART SAYS A FEW KIND WORDS ABOUT ‘RIGHTING WRONGS’
This has to be one of the bleakest action films ever made. Yuen Biao has explored dark subject matter before (i.e. On The Run) but there’s an almost nihilistic streak running through this film, it just happens to be one of the greatest action movies ever made and it also has Cynthia Rothrock.
The film’s plot is pretty much a variation on Death Wish with Yuen Biao playing a vigilante lawyer being pursued by Cynthia Rothrock, make no mistake this is definitely Yuen Biao’s show and, despite having serious competition from Rothrock and the film’s villain Melvin Wong, he more than takes advantage of it. Although this is considered more of a Yuen Biao film, Cynthia Rothrock bolstered her cred by doing this film, she was still fairly new to the industry, having done Yes Madam previously, she was originally scheduled to star opposite Jackie Chan in Armour of God but he seriously injured himself and so she went and did Righting Wrongs instead. It’s interesting to watch her interact with the cast in this film as she barely spoke Cantonese so the director, Corey Yuen worked around it by having her make up her own dialogue then gave certain cues for when she needed to stop and let the other actor respond, her dialogue was dubbed later on but onscreen but she never once looks stiff or out of place.
I’ve always found that Corey Yuen is better at choreographing fights for women and he creates many great set-pieces for Cynthia to strut her stuff. The opening tea-house fight is a terrific little opener, although she get’s doubled by the stuntmen quite abit. Rothrock has a classic one-on-one fight with martial artist Karen Sheperd which allows them both to show off their skills with weapons, Cynthia with a pole and Karen with a rope-chain.
The MVP of the film has to be Melvin Wong, who moves through this film like a tiger, which is exactly how his character describes himself to Yuen Biao and it’s a perfect metaphor, he’s an absolutely ruthless tiger and the film’s finale is absolutely brutal as Yuen and Melvin beat the hell out of each other in a plane warehouse.
Corey stages some impressive stunt scenes, even by today’s standards, the ending is a total holy shit moment, the fight scenes have a nice mix of grittiness and Cynthia, Yuen and Melvin all get their moments. It’s one of the best action films of the eighties.
There’s two versions of this film, the international version and the alternate ending version, which is the one I’m reviewing. The international mainly removes scenes which don’t serve any purpose to international audiences and also has a different ending, the alternate version has a fuck you audience ending, you may decide which one is better.
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So maybe now those of you on the sidelines will give Cynthia Rothrock a fighting chance. And Righting Wrongs certainly sounds like a good place to start, doesn’t it?
On a personal note, I would now like to share with you my favorite Cynthia Rothrock bit that isn’t the endless fight scene from Undefeatable. I would like to showcase the romantic centerpiece from Sworn to Justice.
This excruciatingly boring scene is worth analyzing for a number of reasons. First, I think their rather creative approach to foreplay is the sort of thing on which we should all take notes. I’m referring specifically to Kurt McKinney’s singular style of getting a woman to fall for him by boring her to tears with incessant prattling. To which Rothrock responds by performing a rather frightening sort of mating dance.
The actual fornication is staged very much in the time honored tradition of a Shannon Tweed Skinemax opus, complete with the sort of wonderful sax-driven music that seems to be a winning aphrodisiac for people who get their rocks on by watching Cinemax after midnight.
I suppose, most tragic of all, is that – even after all that spectacular buildup – Rothrock still seems pretty unsatisfied.
I guess McKinney is all talk after all… See for yourself.
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On we go, now, with the more important issues… I mean, that was some big news regarding the Die Hard franchise this week, wasn’t it?
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In other news… Steven Seagal IS… The Border Patrol.
And that’s not his next movie, by the way. He has literally been deputized to control the US-Mexico border. Like, for real.
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“GET OUT! GET THE HELL OUT BEFORE I HAVE YOU THROWN OUT!”
We’re very excited, over at The B Action Movie Thread, about Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas.
Mainly because it might mean that this much sought-after classic finally gets an official DVD release.
Frankly, I think we can all agree that Soderbergh and Douglas have some mighty challenges ahead of them in trying to top that.
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THREAD STALWART RENE F. RANGEL SAW THE THING!
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We leave you now, with this
Can we have a homoerotic “FUCK YES”?