Karate Cops: Martial Law (1990) & Martial Law II: Undercover (1991)

Dave squares up to a pair of fondly remembered biff-’em-ups and chats to scripter Richard Brandes about their making.

Although they went on to form a partnership that yielded half a dozen highly recommendable features in the ‘90s – such as Dead Cold (1995) and The Killing Grounds (1997) – the friendship between Richard Brandes and Kurt Anderson found its roots in the most commonplace of Hollywood introductions: the chance encounter.

“Kurt and I actually met when he was an agent and I was pursuing acting,” says Brandes. “I had started writing in my acting class, primarily because I didn’t want to do the usual scenes everyone else was doing, and I discovered that I enjoyed it a great deal. I was getting a lot of encouragement from fellow students at the time, which led to me and a classmate performing the scene in showcases around town for agents and casting directors and it was here that Kurt saw it. Some months after he had seen the showcase, I ran into him when I was coming out of an audition for a commercial and we got to talking. He told me he had left the agency he was with so he could go and produce movies and had just completed production on his first film, Delta Fever (1987) with Martin Landau. He went on to say he had really liked the scene I wrote and asked if I had any scripts he could read. Coincidentally, I had just finished my first full script, so I gave it to him. The rest is history!”

Party Line (1988) – which features a memorable crossdressing turn from Leif Garrett as a crazed killer – was Brandes’ first produced screenplay. A story credit followed shortly thereafter, on the Robert Forster-starring thriller (and alleged Tarantino favourite) The Banker (1989).

“It was funny,” laughs the writer. “I was literally going to apply to get my master’s in film at UCLA on the day I was hired to write Party Line, but Kurt took me to one side and said, “You don’t need to do that. We’re making movies and you can pretty much write your own ticket with us.”” 

The tidy profits bagged by the likes of Bloodsport (1988) and Above the Law (1988) had Pierre David and his Image Organization predicting an incoming trend of martial arts pictures; something further underlined by Roger Corman pushing out Bloodfist in the fall of 1989. By February 1990, Canuxploitation master David had hired Brandes and Anderson, and cameras were about to roll on the streets of L.A. for the ambitious young pair’s third collaboration, MARTIAL LAW (1990).

Chad McQueen and Cynthia Rothrock play Sean Thompson and Billie Blake: two cops blessed with an in-depth knowledge of the criminal underworld, and the ability to deliver the full power of justice with their bare hands. However, things get personal for Sean when his troublesome younger brother, Michael (Andy McCutcheon), falls into the entourage of the nefarious Dalton Rhodes (David Carradine): a man who’s not only a villainous mastermind, but also the last practitioner of the deadly ‘Dim-Mak’ technique…

“I was on set for Martial Law every day,” recalls Brandes. “It was a big thrill for me to be working with David Carradine, while Chad McQueen and Cynthia Rothrock made it special. Chad obviously came from such a renowned Hollywood lineage and Cynthia was regarded as somewhat legendary in her own right for her accomplishments in the martial arts world. One funny bit of trivia is that we used my house as the location for the Cynthia’s character’s house, which didn’t go over too well with my landlord at the time because I guess I had neglected to mention it [laughs]. They only found out when my next-door neighbour called them to complain about the trucks, trailers and crew! My landlord showed up and threatened to shut us down, but, ultimately, he backed down once negotiations for a satisfactory fee were reached!”  

A breakaway success on home video (producer David states the VHS shifted somewhere in the region of 200,000 units), the critical reaction to Martial Law didn’t quite match its rental popularity. McQueen, who studied for a time under Chuck Norris (at his Dad’s behest, no less), is fine in the lead role, but he lacks the commanding presence of his peers. Philip Tan’s fight choreography is solid, but Brandes’ script is a little workmanlike, painting Carradine as a villain who rarely chills the spine in a narrative that’s short of both rhythm and risk.

It’s perhaps Rothrock’s role (or lack thereof) where the most criticism should be levelled.

Spotted in L.A. in 1983 by Golden Harvest, who were scouting the west coast of America in the hope of finding the new Bruce Lee, Rothrock was offered a contract by the Hong Kong film company which eventually led to her debut, Yes Madam! (1985). A string of eight acclaimed actioners followed – The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988) and The Blonde Fury (1989) among them – but with a new decade on the horizon, Rothrock was keen to dip her high-kicking feet in the American market. Fittingly, it was Pierre David who facilitated it. The mogul was on a sales trip in Germany when he learned one of her pictures was selling out every showing at a nearby cinema. Enticed by the prospect of bona fide female action star, David cast her in Martial Law immediately, which happened to coincide with China O’Brien (1990) and the end of her contract with Golden Harvest.

For Rothrock enthusiasts accustomed to her gut-punching work from the Far East, you can understand the disappointment that might feel watching the sanitised Martial Law – even if director Steve Cohen’s background in Billy Joel promos is enough of clue. I mean, It’s Still Rock n’ Roll to Me is hardly equal to Corey Yuen’s (Righting Wrongs (1986) legacy of bone-breaking spectacularsFor Rothrock herself, the bone of contention laid squarely with poor on-screen representation:

“The biggest challenge for me is getting a major theatrical release,” the dynamic arse-kicker told Femme Fatales in 1995. “If you look at Martial Law 1 and 2, I’m the girlfriend who doesn’t have much to say. She’s just hanging around and she fights. I really don’t want to do those kinds of pictures anymore.” [1]

And as she explained to Mike Cidoni in the week of Martial Law‘s VHS debut:

“The major studios can’t see beyond the male action stars. They’re content with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris and the millions of men out there.” [2]

She’s right too. Despite top billing in the credits and sharing the artwork with her male co-stars, Rothrock’s presence in both Martial Law and MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER (1991) (a.k.a. Karate Cop in some territories) is a sore point. Having said that, when she is on screen, she lights it up – which in terms of Martial Law’s swiftly commissioned follow-up means she makes a superior sequel indispensable. [3]

Scripted once again by Brandes, and marked by Anderson stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, Martial Law II is meaner, moodier and edgier. Less cut and dry, it features three-dimensional characters that are captivating rather than cookie cutter. Gone is McQueen, with the more assured Jeff Wincott in the role of Sean Thompson, who, along with Billie Blake, find themselves in a far more compelling narrative investigating the mysterious death of a cop. Uncovering a deadly ring of murder and corruption, their investigation leads them through the underbelly of society and right to those residing in seats of power.

From the get-go, Anderson’s stab at the franchise is visually more impressive. Cinematographer Peter Fernberger was fresh from the set of Steve Barnett’s Mindwarp (1991) (returning the favour, Barnett works second unit here) and his photography in this arresting offering has a richness and depth that eclipses the regrettably staid work by John Huneck on the original Martial Law. Better still, it’s obvious that David put more money into this movie, and every penny is on display; from the locations and choreography (by Jeff Pruitt), to a cast that sees Evan Lurie, Sherrie Rose, Max Thayer, and Billy Drago excel in their supporting turns.

There’s a risk when assessing these pictures that any acclaim for the second film casts a shadow of mediocrity on the first. It’s impossible to avoid it. To be clear, despite its flaws and clunkiness, Martial Law remains an enjoyable and recommendable ninety minutes. It just so happens that Martial Law II ranks among the best direct-to-video action movies of its decade.

Debuting at MIFED in October 1991, Pierre David was quick to announce that ‘Martial Law III’ was on its way. It didn’t quite work out like that. What was intended to be the third chapter did start rolling in December ’91, but both Rothrock and Brandes had moved on (“I had kind of lost interest in the genre and wanted to try other things”). Anderson (as producer) and Wincott remained, but Det. Thompson became Kurt Harris, a bitter ex-cop, and ‘Martial Law III’ became the Steve Barnett-directed Mission of Justice (1992).

[1] Cynthia Rothrock Interview by Frederick C. Szebin, Femmes Fatales, Vol. 4, No. 1., Summer 1995.
[2] Female Martial Artist Gaining Chops as Action Film Star by Mike Cidoni, Gannett News Service, 17th May 1991.
[3] Of note: Martial Law II: Undercover was greenlit on the strength of presales alone. It was shot in March ’91, ten weeks before the first movie arrived in U.S. stores on 16th May.

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