Fighter Pilot: Irresistible Force (1993)

Everyone loves Cynthia Rothrock. Well, everyone except CBS as Dave discovers with this look at Lady Dragon’s failed dalliance with primetime TV. Featuring an interview with scripter Carleton Eastlake!

“It’s the best work I’ve ever done.”

A quote like that from scorpion-kicking icon Cynthia Rothrock conjures up a whole heap of possibilities,  what with Righting Wrongs (1986), Yes Madam! (1985), and China O’Brien (1990) all sitting confidently at the top of the Wilmington warrior’s resume. The fact, then, that this utterance of delight pertains to IRRESISTIBLE FORCE (1993) – a barely released failure – probably comes as quite the surprise.

Well, let’s hold our Tang Soo Do for a second and put the word ‘failure’ into context. In terms of what it was intended to be – an ongoing series – then, yes, Irresistible Force ‘failed’ to make it. However, once you realise how the odds were stacked against it from the beginning, the description becomes a convenient, throwaway adjective for a quality movie with a fascinating history.

“It was jointly financed by CBS and Fox Video,” says Irresistible Force‘s scripter and co-executive producer, Carleton Eastlake. “But the project really came out of John Davis’ company which, of course, was rooted in the feature film business and wanted to do something longer than a one hour pilot. Merrill Karpf, the executive producer, had his offices at Davis Entertainment. My office was in the CBS headquarters building on Fairfax.”

For many at CBS, the idea of Rothrock as the co-lead was a non-starter. They’d had a deal with her in place for a full year, but in that time they’d managed to kill at least one script they’d developed for the action superstar. With Rothrock’s rep growing, it became clear that letting her contract expire without a production coming to fruition might not be good business.

“I got a telephone call to invite me to come in and pitch an approach,” recalls Eastlake. “The executive on the call – sorry, I no longer remember who – said they were talking about her being a woman cop who had a male partner that didn’t want to work with a woman because he didn’t think women were capable of doing the job. Hey, it was 1993 after all! I replied, diplomatically, that might not work for a series because the first time the guy saw Cynthia in action he’d know she could do the job. Also, if he was a tough cop who wanted a tough partner, there wouldn’t be much of a contrast between him and Cynthia. However, if he was a sort of lazy, pragmatic cop, he might beg to get a woman as a partner thinking she wouldn’t be up to the job and so would never lead him into danger and he could live long enough to retire. Then the first time he saw Cynthia charging into action, he’d hysterically know for the life of the series he’d screwed himself, which was a conflict he could never resolve – he’d always be in danger, but his macho chauvinism would also constantly propel him into backing Cynthia up.”

“My memory is the CBS executive on the call replied, “Okay. Wow! Yes! There’s no need for you to come in and pitch – write that show and as fast as you can!” It was the second easiest and fastest sale of my career.”

“Now, as it turned out, it also bailed CBS out on another deal. They had a holding deal with Stacy Keach which was also about to expire at great expense because they hadn’t come up with a series for him either. So since I was about to write an older, experienced cop as Cynthia’s partner, CBS told me to think of Keach.”

“The deal with Keach had only days left to run, and this was before electronic delivery was common, so CBS asked me to drive out to Malibu or wherever with a draft of the script and talk him through the concept. All this suggested the title of the show too: Cynthia was ‘The Irresistible Force’, Stacy was ‘The Immovable Object’!”

Even with Eastlake’s dynamite script, CBS were still intent on placing a few potential stumbling blocks in Rothrock’s way – chiefly, an audition. Given her status in Europe and the Far East, the actress would have been well within her rights to pass. Gamely, she agreed and even underwent a handful of acting lessons beforehand to fine tune her technique. Finally, after performing three scenes in front of a male-dominated throng of CBS brass, she was in.

Irresistible Force‘s director, Kevin Hooks – fresh from Passenger 57 (1992) – was thrilled with Rothrock, remarking to the star that if he’d known her before, he would have cast her as the bad guy opposite Wesley Snipes in his preceding hit [1]. And with Keach now in place, it seemed like everything was rosy ahead of Irresistible Force‘s June ’93 shoot in Queensland, Australia…

To the casual observer everything was on track. By September, Irresistible Force was listed among two-hundred telepics and pilots that were in production at the four main networks, although a couple of months later in December, when Rothrock was interviewed in The Scranton Tribune, there were the first rumblings of a bottleneck.

“They’re testing it right now in different areas of the United States and we hear it’s doing very well,” was Rothrock’s response when asked why the film wasn’t locked in for its original January ’94 airdate, before suggesting that CBS were keen to buy some time to shoot a few more episodes ready for broadcast in the weeks after the feature-length pilot [2]. Strangely, spring came and went – and in an April ’94 chat with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the martial arts master teased that a July premiere was on the cards [3]. Admittedly, said bow did materialise… But only in video stores across the U.K., when Irresistible Force made its British VHS debut via Fox. By Christmas, though, Hooks – who was about to enter pre-production on Fled (1996) – was seen praising Rothrock’s “charm, personality, talent and ambition” in an article that finally referred to Irresistible Force as “an unsold pilot” [4].

So why did it fail?


1992 changed the landscape of television for a good chunk of time. The Los Angeles riots made violence on the small screen a taboo subject, and even independent women found themselves to be a target of the back-end of President George Bush Sr.’s first and only term in office. During his campaign for re-election, Vice President Dan Quayle had taken aim at Murphy Brown, the CBS sitcom with Candice Bergen, for “mocking the importance of fathers by [Bergen’s character] bearing a child alone”. The controversy prompted Richard Zoglin to pen a piece in Time Magazine about how primetime television was “boosting family values more aggressively that it had in decades” [5], and the Los Angeles Times remarked how Murphy Brown’s rep as an outlier for the network meant that their new line-up in the coming fall would inevitably be in the political spotlight [6].

For Jeff Sagansky, the somewhat beleaguered head of CBS, the notion of a violence-heavy show being led by an ass-kicking woman (“unladylike” according to Rothrock) did not appear to sit comfortably with either him or the social climate. Rothrock has since admitted that CBS suits were continually sending memos throughout the shoot regarding content. From no blood being shown, to no kicks to the head or groin, the network’s constraints were pushing an increasingly annoyed Hooks to the point of going rogue. As Rothrock relayed to Femme Fatales in mid ’95:

“Kevin would go, “What? Are they crazy?! I have this woman who can do this amazing stuff and they don’t want a kick in the head?” So he just shot it the way he wanted to. He made it like a good theatrical feature. Needless to say, there were a lot of kicks to the head!

“My agents wanted to the sell the pilot to a syndicated network,” Rothrock went on to say, “But CBS doesn’t want to release it. I don’t even have any photographs from the film because it’s their policy not to send out promotional materials on something that they’ve decided not to show. It’s sitting there, and I don’t know if they’ll ever show it.” [7]

In a belligerent move, Irresistible Force never did grace the small screen in America or Canada once it had been placed in the CBS vault. Thankfully, owing to the partnership deal with Fox, it did belatedly make its home entertainment debut in the U.S. – albeit in the pre-Christmas graveyard week of 19th December, with an overpriced barebones DVD upgrade following in 2015 (courtesy of, ironically, CBS MOD).

Realistically speaking, though, could the pilot have ever made the leap to series? Eastlake remains confident:

“You have to remember that many, even most American procedural shows in 1993 weren’t arced or only faintly, barely arced. The ideal was to tell a complete story in a single hour because arced shows were difficult to flexibly program. The practice then was to show episodes out of shooting-order so the most exciting, successful episodes could be grouped into the rating sweeps periods. Quality dramas might be arced, and soaps had to be arced, but cop shows often had no real arc at all.”

“An interesting historical note about this: Hill Street Blues, although a cop show, had the apparent arcing of a quality drama. Most people weren’t aware of it – but at least in some years, Hill Street tried to use the pattern of a three-show arc, then a freestanding episode, then another three-show arc so it had enough production and programming flexibility for a network TV schedule.”

“All the same, even on my first staff job with The Equalizer, which might do two-episode stories but was not strongly arced, I tried to build in some continuity within the episodes that I could control. For example, although no one has ever noticed it, in my second episode for The Equalizer, the woman calling him says the client in my first episode is the person who gave her his number. So although Irresistible Force was meant to be an episodic procedural, I would have introduced some arcing into the series. The fact that Stacy was nearing retirement meant early episodes would deal with his conflicts over whether to remain on the force and abandon Cynthia or defer retirement to work with her. I also gave Stacy a child and a young wife who had a career as a nurse, played by the amazing Kathleen Garrett. The plan was always for Kathleen to appear as a regular and for Stacy’s married life and Cynthia’s single, dating life to appear on screen.”

This tease of what might have been exacerbates the disappointment of just having the telepic – but what a movie it is. As Rothrock herself said, it’s genuinely some of her best work. It may be full of clichés, but it has far more about it to simply be shrugged off as a mere Die Hard (1987) clone. Eastlake’s script centres on Sgt. Harris Stone (Keach), a cop with twenty-one days left on the force, and with a desperate need to avoid any kind of scuffs or scrapes to ensure that he reaches pensionable age with the minimum of fuss. In need of a new partner to see out his final few weeks, what stronger guarantee could there be of no aggro than selecting Charlie Heller (Rothrock), a female rookie, to partner with?

As fate would have it, it’s only a matter of hours before Stone finds himself at the centre of a domestic terrorist situation as the members of a supremacist cell called White Cobras hold key community figures hostage in a mall. For Heller it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase her potential as a cop – and for a reluctant Stone it’s the chance to close the chapter on a criminal that once eluded him. As this odd couple band together in the face of adversity, they soon discover that their differences could prove to be their salvation…

Briskly paced at just under eighty minutes, Irresistible Force is a fast-moving piece of firepower that showcases a triple-header of interest: the dexterity of Cynthia Rothrock, the ingenuity of a director under pressure, and the ignorance of a network who refused to swim against the tide.

“It’s always a disappointment when a show you create doesn’t go to series,” concludes Eastlake. “But, you know, early in production I had my doubts. Merrill and I wanted to shoot in a disused shopping mall in Colorado, but CBS under-budgeted the pilot and yet was insisting on building an entire mall set in Australia because the new fad in Hollywood was to go to Australia for shows that needed big builds since Oz was peculiarly and particularly cheap for big-set construction. So, yeah, we ended up building a huge yet relatively inexpensive shopping mall set that, all the same, we could have had as a practical in Colorado. And once we got to the Gold Coast, casting was a problem for smaller roles because Australia was just beginning to build the international film production community it has now. Even finding appropriate cars was difficult, and streets looked strange and electrical outlets in practical locations looked even stranger.”

“And Kevin Hooks, now an amazing, experienced director, was then an amazing, inexperienced director being asked to shoot in a strange country with strange work rules! So simply finding enough money to pay for enough shooting time for him became a daily nightmare. I finally had to set up a totally ad hoc second unit – which Kevin agreed to – to shoot supplemental footage on the cheap. It was so ad hoc we didn’t carry sound; the dialog was done later in ADR. Cynthia, who was the single best human I have ever worked with on anything, also donated her unused travel allowance to finance a few more hours.”

“So it was a disappointment that the series wasn’t picked up. But it was not unexpected. And I moved on almost immediately to Spielberg’s seaQuest DSV series, where I mostly did have enough money for my episodes!”

[1] Cynthia Rothrock: Irresistible Force, Official YouTube Channel, 18th July 2020.
[2] TV with a Kick by Margaret Emery, The Scranton Tribune, 20th December 1993.
[3] Belle of Black Belts by Greg Mellen, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8th April 1994.
[4] Action Heroine Draws No Punches in Crowing That She Loves Her Work by Andy Meisler, New York Times, 25th December 1994.
[5] Labor and Other Pains by Richard Zoglin, Time Magazine, 11th May 1992.
[6] Sitcoms Seek Apolitical Road – CBS, The Los Angeles Times, 25th July 1992.
[7] Cynthia Rothrock by Frederick C. Szebin, Femme Fatales, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer 1995.

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