Tom Jolliffe takes a look at the career of action heroine Cynthia Rothrock…
Western stars who have managed to break China and Hong Kong successfully are a rare breed. In fact there’s probably only one person who has found success as a major action star in China, as well as in the west. Some have made fleeting appearances. Scott Adkins popped up in Wolf Warrior and then Ip Man 4 (as well as stunt work in his early career). Undoubtedly he has the talent and adaptability to cut the mustard with the Hong Kong action teams and their way of shooting. So who did manage to make to break the market across both sides of the world? Cynthia Rothrock. In fact she broke Asia first.
Rothrock, a world class martial artist and former world forms and weapons champion, was talent spotted and thrown headfirst into action superstardom, making an auspicious debut alongside Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh of course is one of Asia’s finest exports, who has most certainly seen some success in the East and West, coming in the opposite direction. Yeoh, originally a dancer, and Rothrock made a formidable team in Yes Madam (also known as Police Assassins). The film was a huge success, launching both Rothrock and Yeoh as stars. In that initial burst, Rothrock was particularly popular and starred in a number of HK films over the next few years.
In Asia, the female action hero wasn’t a new phenomenon. Female lead action films had been historically popular in periods in China and Japan notably (though had fallen a little out of fashion by the late 70’s). It was clear given the audience reaction to Rothrock that there was a demand for more. Right now in Hollywood of course, we’re having something of a female lead action boom. Charlize Theron, when she’s not picking fights with Steven Seagal, is starting to rule the roost, but the Hollywood way (in action generally) post Matrix is to give cast a few months of crash course film fighting training and then fill in the gaps with stunt doubles and CGI. Back in the 80’s in particular a whole heap of action guys were launched, who were often the real deal. Many a black belt, or world champion of something stepped in front of screen (many of whom have crossed paths, and occasionally fists with Rothrock). Rothrock, one of a select few women of action who were in consistent demand in the 90’s on video, was (is) a legitimate badass.
So whilst out East, Rothrock starred alongside Sammo Hung in Millionaires Express (alongside fellow action icon Richard Norton, who became a regular bad guy in Asia, and in the US), Yeun Biao in Righting Wrongs, and got her own standout solo show, Blonde Fury (also known as Lady Reporter). This was during the peak years of HK action cinema. Biao, Hung and Jackie Chan were revolutionising action, both in front and behind the camera with their trademark blend of frenetic martial arts, gymnastics, comedic physicality and stunts. Through the mid 80’s, up until the late 90’s, it’s fair to say that the shoots were often a little crazy and stunts often reckless (but the results of course, looked exceptional). Many Westerners have tried, and not quite succeeded when appearing in HK action, because they couldn’t handle the pace, or the intense physicality (punches aren’t often pulled). Rothrock could, and she’s had war stories to tell (including almost getting knocked out cold by renowned stunt man damager, Dick Wei). There’s a reason you occasionally see one film wonders, as opposed to those who successfully got the call to return (Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, who was chief villain for Jackie Chan twice, had exceptional face-offs). Rothrock’s HK film work is largely immense.
Home was calling and offers were waiting. Rothrock quickly established herself as a popular video star. The genre was booming on VHS. There were male action stars coming from everywhere, notably Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, Gary Daniels, Olivier Gruner and Billy Blanks. Hot off her popularity and success in Asia, Rothrock was quickly promoted as the Queen of Martial arts. There wasn’t much in the way of theatrical impact, her first major US production, No Retreat No Surrender 2 (a US/HK co production directed by action legend Corey Yuen) did hit the big screen, but without much joy. On video, it was big. Robert Clouse (Enter The Dragon) helmed China O’Brien. It was co produced by Golden Harvest, and the action, whilst HK-lite, still looked a step beyond most of the all American equivalents at the time. A sequel followed, and both films remain two of Rothrock’s most enjoyable American films (aided by the presence of Richard Norton). Cynthia does Walking Tall essentially and Clouse directing offers an assurance that wouldn’t always be in evidence in some of her late 90’s/00’s work.
Two Lady Dragon films (from the director of Kickboxer), two Martial Law films, two Rage and Honors and three Tiger Claws films (the first two featuring iconic Chinese villain Bolo Yeung) proved a popularity in what Rothrock was making. She was cranking out some enjoyable B-movie fare. They weren’t being greeted with rapturous critical response, as is normal in this genre, but particularly looking back now in retrospect, some of these films have aged well in comparison to a lot of modern action films which lack punch. Whether she’s roundhousing someone in the head, or delivering the patented Rothrock sting, no one could accuse Cynthia of not delivering on ass-whoopery. There’s no CGI, no Lycra suit and mask to hide a double in. She was doing the business (check Rothrock’s YouTube channel for plenty of great insights into these films).
There were some other standouts of that prolific period through the 90’s. Infamous indie action company, PM Entertainment, known for a gleeful penchant for big scale action on low budgets, were a breeding ground for big name stunt men. A few of the action titans crossed paths with PM, and Rothrock was among them with the enjoyable, Guardian Angel. She also made something of an enjoyable step away from type with Sworn To Justice. The film, which greatly benefits from having Mako and Brad Dourif in the cast, saw Rothrock developing psychic powers in order to track down the killers of her sister and gain revenge. All this, whilst the film marked probably the first picture she’d done playing up to her sex symbol image. There’s often not much time for that business when you’re always fighting, but Sworn To Justice laced in a few more erotic elements among the action, and whilst the psychic aspect is a little goofy, it’s still something that gives the film a unique twist for the genre, and Rothrock delivered one of her most rounded performances. It’s also well worth checking out Irresistible Force which teamed Rothrock with Stacy Keach, doing Die Hard in a mall (from director Kevin Hooks, who’d already done Die Hard on a plane in Passenger 57). Additionally, Undefeatable and Honor and Glory have become notorious entries in the so bad they’re great camp. For more comedic fare, a double with the late Corey Haim, Fast Getaway (and its slightly less enjoyable sequel) was a lot of fun.
There was a quiet period of time from 2004-2010(ish) that seemed to hit a lot of the action icons of the 90’s video market (for differing reasons) but nostalgia laden action like The Expendables saw a resurgence. Speaking of which, with renewed talk of a fourth film, it’s probably time that Rothrock got the green light to suit up for an Expendables outing. With Rothrock in demand, and still looking fantastic, it would be great to see her get that shot on the big stage that has eluded her somewhat in the West.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.