Director: Robert Clouse
Screenplay: Robert Clouse, Sandra Weintraub, James Hennessy (China O’Brien 2), Craig Clyde (China O’Brien 2)
Starring: Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, Keith Cooke, David Blackwell, Steven Kerby, Harlow Marks, Frank Magner
Running Time: 90 mins (China O’Brien), 86 min (China O’Brien 2)
Year: 1990
Country: USA, Hong Kong, China
BBFC Certificate: 18

Cynthia Rothrock’s fame was rapidly building throughout the latter half of the 1980s, after the highly-skilled martial artist was first offered an acting role in 1985’s Yes, Madam!. Over the course of a handful of films, she moved from supporting and sometimes minor roles to leads, becoming the first Western actress to take top billing in a Hong Kong production, with Lady Reporter.

Now established as a star, Golden Harvest felt Rothrock could be their ticket to break back into the Western market after enjoying great success with Enter the Dragon in 1973. They’d tried but failed to reignite this flame with subsequent botched attempts to bring Jackie Chan to US cinemas (he wouldn’t make it big over there until Rumble in the Bronx in 1995). With Rothrock being a US native though, they figured she’d be an easier sell. So, they brought back their favourite American director, Robert Clouse, who’d delivered the goods with Enter the Dragon (clearly ignoring his work on Battle Creek Brawl), and set to work on China O’Brien. This, and its sequel, which was shot simultaneously with the first film, were to be US co-productions, shot in the States with a largely American crew, and in the English language.

Whilst the films weren’t huge hits, not even making it to Western cinemas, they performed well on VHS, particularly in the UK (who got the films a year or two earlier for some reason). The China O’Brien films have great nostalgia value for those who did rent them on tape back then and Eureka are capitalising on that by releasing them together on both Blu-ray and UHD. I got hold of a Blu-ray copy and my thoughts follow.

Please note, I’m reviewing both films together because they were shot back-to-back, made by mostly the same team and share the same qualities/flaws. Plus, I’m lazy.

In China O’Brien, martial artist cop Lori “China” O’Brien (Rothrock) is forced to resign from the force after a tragic accident. Leaving the city behind, she heads to her quiet hometown of Beaver Creek to find solace with her father, Sheriff John O’Brien (David Blackwell).

However, trouble brews in the once-idyllic town. Beaver Creek is now under the thumb of ruthless crime boss Edwin Sommers (Steven Kerby), whose influence corrupts the courts and even the sheriff’s department. When John arrests one of Sommers’ men, it triggers a deadly car bomb attack that takes his life and leaves China devastated. Determined to clean up the town and avenge her father, China joins forces with an old flame, martial artist Matt Conroy (Richard Norton), and a local biker named Dakota (Keith Cooke), who is seeking revenge for his mother’s death. Together, they launch a campaign for China to become sheriff, aiming to take down Sommers and his gang from within the law.

China O’Brien 2 begins with peace reigning in Beaver Creek. China and her deputies have transformed the town into Utah’s safest haven. But trouble finds its way to this remote paradise. Escaped drug lord Charlie Baskin (Harlow Marks) seeks refuge in Beaver Creek, hot on the trail of Frank Atkins (​​Frank Magner), a former associate who spilt the beans on Baskin’s operation and stashed stolen drug money in the town.

Baskin’s goons terrorise Atkins, culminating in the kidnapping of his wife and daughter. With communication to the outside world severed, China, Matt, and Dakota are trapped in a fight for survival. They must overcome Baskin’s forces and save the Atkins family, all while keeping Beaver Creek safe.

Whilst this is a Golden Harvest co-production and features stars proficient in Eastern martial arts and often with experience making Hong Kong action films, the US production team, under the watchful eye of Clouse and Los Angeles-based fight choreographer Nijel (a.k.a. Nigel Binns), give the China O’Brien films more of an American style of action. There is a distinct flavour of Hong Kong kung-fu movies simmering under the surface though.

A large proportion of the cast weren’t trained in martial arts and this shows. The pros like Rothrock, Norton and Cooke get to show some nice moves but fights are kept shorter and less elaborate than in their Eastern counterparts. This doesn’t mean the action is necessarily bad, but those looking to get a fix of ‘proper’ Hong Kong kung-fu might be disappointed. Instead, we get plenty of short, tough brawls with a fair few spin kicks and stick fights thrown in for good measure.

Cooke broke his hand shortly before the shoot, so they improvised by giving his character a severe injury, bandaging up his hand and adding a weird metal block on his wrist. Despite the handicap, the martial artist-turned-actor gets possibly a better chance to show off his skills than the other two leads. It seems as though Golden Harvest were using the films as a launchpad for Cooke as much as they were trying to use Rothrock to break into the US market. He’s very impressive here and it’s a shame he never found greater fame, though he did appear in a couple of cult classics, namely King of the Kick Boxers and a couple of the Mortal Kombat movies.

Whilst Rothrock doesn’t get to show off her martial arts skills quite as successfully as she did in some of her straight-up Hong Kong roles, she gets a better chance to show off her acting chops here. Previously, in her Hong Kong films, she was given minimal dialogue and characters that were pretty simple – just a heroine out to get the bad guy. In the first China O’Brien in particular, Rothrock has some big emotional beats to dig into and, whilst she’s maybe not going to be winning any Oscars, she delivers the goods admirably, making for a strong yet charming lead.

Norton often played the bad guy in films prior to this and he looks to be having a blast playing the good guy for a change. Like Rothrock, what he maybe lacks in nuance he makes up for in charisma.

According to Rothrock, whilst the script gave no indication of a romantic relationship between her and Norton’s character (other than mentioning they used to spend a lot of time together as teenagers), the pair agreed to add a suggestion of that through their performances. I think this more subtle approach works and their chemistry is effective, likely helped by their real-life friendship.

It’s refreshing to see that a romance wasn’t thrown into the mix in general, allowing for a rare female-led American action movie from the era where our heroine isn’t sexualised or set up with an unnecessary love interest. Female action stars were commonplace in Hong Kong but in the US, there were still very few of them (away from James Cameron movies), so it feels fairly groundbreaking in this sense.

Away from the action and stars though, the films are pretty generic. They were made very quickly (shooting around 6 weeks in total, supposedly) and this shows, with a TV-movie look to them both. Surprisingly, the films were shot by Kent L. Wakeford, who lensed Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore for Martin Scorsese, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them.

If I were to pick a favourite of the two China O’Brien films, I’d say the second one, though there’s not much between them. The sequel just feels like the action has been amped up a little, particularly in the wild finale, which throws in a bunch of bizarre fighters, some of which are clearly aping big movie hits of the time.

Overall, the China O’Brien films are more than a little corny and don’t quite reach the heights of some of the Hong Kong films their stars worked on. However, they’re both very enjoyable in their own US-Hong Kong hybrid fashion. Plus, it’s nice to see Rothrock being given a better role to work with to show her skills as an actress, not just a fighter. Go in with the right frame of mind and you’ll have a lot of fun with the China O’Brien films.


China O’Brien 1 & 2 is out on 29th April in separate Blu-Ray and UHD editions in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. I watched the Blu-ray discs and both films look fantastic, with bold, rich colours and detailed images with light, natural grain. They both sound great too.


– 4K UHD
– Limited-edition O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (2000 copies)
– 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentations, presented in Dolby Vision HDR from brand new 4K restorations of the original film elements
– Uncompressed original English mono (China O’Brien) and stereo (China O’Brien 2) audio tracks
– Optional English SDH
– Brand new feature-length audio commentaries on both films by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
– Brand new feature-length commentary on China O’Brien 2 by Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
– Select-scene commentary on both films by Cynthia Rothrock and Frank Djeng
– Made in China – Brand new interview with Cynthia Rothrock
– Enter Dakota – Brand new interview with actor and martial artist Keith Cooke
– A Conversation with Richard Norton – Brand new interview with actor and martial artist Richard Norton by A.J. Richardi and Gavin Kelley of The Martial Arts Mania Podcast
– Leon Hunt on China O’Brien – Brand new interview with Leon Hunt, author of Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger
– James Mudge on China O’Brien – Brand new interview with filmmaker and critic James Mudge
– Limited Edition Reversible Poster
– Trailers
– A Limited-edition collector’s booklet featuring new essays by James Oliver and film scholar Eddie Falvey (2000 copies)

* The Blu-ray edition is basically the same, but spread over 2 Blu-ray discs and, of course, the films are presented in 1080p, rather than 4K.

Arne Venema and Mike Leeder provide commentaries for both films. They’re a pleasure to listen to, as always, alternating between jokey comments and interesting facts about those involved. Leeder has some stories to tell about the cast and crew members he’s met too.

Frank Djeng provides one commentary on the sequel but states that it will cover both films and that his and Rothrock’s favourite is the second film. As usual for Djeng, it’s an exhaustively well-researched track, with plenty of illuminating facts about the cast, crew and production.

Rothrock joins Djeng for a select scene commentary for each film too, focussing on key fight scenes. She talks about the choreography and her memories of the production.

There’s also a 22-minute interview with Rothrock. She talks of her excitement about being able to make a film in her home country. She describes how Clouse was less concerned with supporting her acting, being more interested in the action. She also explains how the shoot was more rushed than in Hong Kong, particularly in terms of action, as well as how there were some accidents, including, sadly, the death of one of the explosives experts.

There’s also an epic near-50-minute interview with Richard Norton. He starts by discussing how he got into the industry before talking in-depth about his work on the China O’Brien movies. Like Rothrock, Norton is charming and amiable, providing an engaging chat that’s a welcome addition to the set.

Keith Cooke is also interviewed. He talks about his life as a martial artist, meeting Jet Li and Donnie Yen before they made it big in the movies. He then goes on to talk about his film career and his work on the China O’Brien films. Like the other interviewees, he discusses the differences between shooting action in the US and Hong Kong. He has fond memories, like the others, so it’s another likeable interview.

James Mudge talks about the films, particularly the backgrounds and subsequent careers of those involved in making them. It covers some similar ground to the commentaries but acts as a handy alternative to them, should you not have the time or patience for 3 full commentaries.

Leon Hunt provides another essay. I particularly liked this one as it offered some fresh insights and a slightly more analytical approach in places, even if there was a little crossover with some of the other extras here.

In the booklet, Eddie Falvey discusses women in action movies and where China O’Brien sits among these, as well as talking about the two films more generally, including their politics. In his essay, James Oliver again talks generally about the films. He maybe doesn’t bring that much new to the table (it’s the last thing I went through before writing this review) but he writes concisely and intelligently.

So, Eureka have done an excellent job with the China O’Brien films. The transfers look great and there’s a wealth of bonus material to get through. As such, the set comes highly recommended.


China O'Brien 1 & 2 - Eureka
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.