COVID-19? Legend says there’s a dragon-monster behind it so, time to bring on the ‘Lady Dragon’ Cynthia Rothrock to kung-the-fu out of that corona virus! When you think of 80’s and 90’s female action movie stars, the name Cynthia Rothrock will probably be the first that comes to mind. Rothrock began her martial arts career studying Tang Soo Doo at the age of 13. She describes herself as being “uncoordinated” in the beginning. Hard to believe, I know. But she persevered, practiced hard and from there went on to learn Eagle Claw Kung Fu and earn a black belt in Taekwondo.
Along with these impressive accomplishments she also trained in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu and wushu. By the age of 25 she had amassed a total of five black belts. Using these skills she competed in national forms competitions in the early 80’s. Her eclectic range of martial arts skills infused her forms with originality and was a factor in her going undefeated for five years before her retirement in 1985 whereupon she broke into the movie industry.
In 1983, Hong Kong movie producers held auditions in Los Angeles to find the next male martial arts superstar. Rothrock demonstrated some forms for them including weapons along with some self-defence techniques. The producers were so impressed that they decided to sign her instead of any of the guys who had auditioned. And a great decision it turned out to be. Instead of a male superstar they had found one of the first female martial arts superstars. Fast forward two years to 1985 and she was in Hong Kong filming “Police Assassins”, (aka “Yes Madam”) with Michelle Yeoh in a role originally written for a man.
Rothrock lived in Hong Kong until 1988 during which time she acted in seven movies and was able to showcase her amazing talent. At that time she was more well known in Asia than in America. After her Hong Kong success, she returned to her home country to take a shot at films in the US, first appearing in “China O’Brien” (1990). From there she went on to star in numerous films and cement her name as America’s premiere female action star.
To this day, that is a title that remains hers. While other female martial artists have appeared in movies and many dramatic actresses have played action roles, nobody else has combined real-world martial arts skills and credentials with on-screen presence into a such a winning combination, and especially not with such a lengthy career. Her impact even led to being the inspiration for the “Mortal Kombat” videogame series character Sonya Blade.
Cynthia Rothrock retired from acting in 2004 but returned in 2011 to a semi-retired status appearing in movies like “The Martial Arts Kid” (2015), a favourite of hers (which you can also watch via Amazon). She still teaches at her studio and looks likes she hasn’t missed a step. Obviously martial arts is a genuinely lifelong passion for her. With her trailblazing efforts in female-led action movies combining her energy, style and impressive capabilities, she is the undisputed “Queen of Martial Arts”.
Rothrock has featured in many memorable screen showdowns, so without further ado let’s take a look at the Top 10 Cynthia Rothrock Movie Fights (in descending order)!
- Prince of the Sun (1990) – vs. Monks
- Lady Dragon (1992) – Opening Prizefight
- China O’Brien (1990) – Gym Fight with Richard Norton
- Lady Reporter / aka The Blonde Fury (1989) – Cargo Net Battle
- Magic Crystal (1986) – vs Richard Norton with Andy Lau
- Lady Reporter – Fight in High Heels
- Righting Wrongs (1986) – vs Yuen Biao
- Righting Wrongs – vs Karen Sheperd
- Police Assassins / Yes, Madam (1985) – Final Fight with Michelle Yeoh
Maybe not as well-remembered as some of her other movie outings, “Prince of the Sun” does offer some really good physical battles, one of the standouts being a fight-chase between Cynthia Rothrock and some evil monks.
Set against a beautiful temple backdrop, with Rothrock donning monks robes herself all makes for a visually striking encounter. Rothrock performs some wushu pole techniques but hand-to-hand is mainly the order of the day as she battles her aggressors while being pursued throughout the temple. The combat and chase are blended very well together with gymnastic moves like front somersaults, backflips and kip-ups adding to an altogether exhilarating scene.
This is how martial arts movies should begin, getting straight down to business! “Lady Dragon” starts as it means to go on, opening with a crunching prizefight between Rothrock and a hulking opponent. To the baying of a large bloodthirsty crowd, which really adds atmosphere to proceedings, the huge fighter awaits a challenger when a hooded figure enters the makeshift arena. It’s Rothrock of course, who proceeds to kick seven bells out of her adversary.
“Lady Dragon” was written and directed by David Worth who also directed “Kickboxer” (1989), so the fights are very well shot. By the way, however intimidating her opening challenger looks, he is nothing compared to whom she has to face later in the movie which we’ll subsequently see in this very countdown.
Made by legendary Hong Kong film company, Golden Harvest, responsible for so many martial arts classics of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, “China O’Brien” was actually filmed in Utah with an American crew. It also has the distinction of being directed by Robert Clouse, director of the most famous martial arts movie ever made, “Enter the Dragon” (1973).
Although the fights may not be as frenetic as Rothrock’s Asian offerings, the Hong Kong influence can still be seen and heard in the fight scenes’ choreography and sound effects. It’s also one of the numerous occasions where Rothrock appeared alongside Australian martial artist and Hollywood blockbuster fight-choreographer Richard Norton. The two fought alongside and against each other onscreen many times. Here they work together, specifically in this scene to plow through bad dudes in a gymnasium.
Their separate approaches make for an interesting contrast, Norton’s style emphasizes strength and power while Rothrock exudes more grace and dexterity.
Hong Kong martial arts movies have always been so inventive not only with hand-to-hand combat itself but also in making use of the surrounding environment, incorporating it into the fight and making a prop almost a character in and of itself!
This scene is a great example of that where Cynthia Rothrock takes on a slew of adversaries and battles them on a huge cargo net. She jumps, swings, and flips in death-defying manner on the net in a display worthy of Jackie Chan. And if that breathtaking segment wasn’t enough, following it there is a great staff battle with talented martial artist Jeff Falcon, with whom Rothrock has crossed paths and fists in numerous Hong Kong films.
Whatever this movie might lack in story elements, it more than makes up for in its frantic fight scenes. Rothrock takes on Richard Norton earlier in the movie in another solid battle but it is this showdown that wins out.
Rothrock gets a crack at Norton single-handedly first, blending Eagle Claw and Praying Mantis kung fu styles, incorporating grabs and plucking attacks married with her usual sublime kicks. Then Hong Kong film and entertainment legend Andy Lau joins the fray and they battle Norton together making for a very memorable encounter.
It’s been said that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. Well, it looks like Cynthia Rothrock did the same in the martial arts world.
Returning again to “Female Reporter”, we see her take on her opponent wearing high heels while he gets to comfortably spring around in regular shoes. Does it slow her down? Not for a moment. Even with this hindrance, Rothrock’s speed and agility are nicely showcased as she high kicks, rolls, jumps and even runs along walls. Of course, high heels can make for quite a weapon as her opponent finds out…very painfully, Ouch!
While he may not be as much of a household name as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung or Jet Li, Yuen Biao is undoubetdly one of the most talented martial arts actors from the golden period of 80’s Hong Kong action movies.
Combining martial arts with astounding acrobatic ability, any encounter he is involved in is guaranteed to be thrilling. That’s why a face-off between Biao and Rothrock makes for such a mouth-watering proposition, especially when the director is Corey Yuen. This one certainly delivers.
At this point in the movie, Rothrock and Biao’s characters are adversaries, and she’s trying to catch him. The resulting confrontation and chase, with a dash of parkour thrown in for good measure, is exciting stuff with our two performers at the top of their games matching each other move for move. “Righting Wrongs” is actually Rothrock’s own personal favourite Hong Kong movie that she starred in exactly because of the fantastic action.
There is a lot of conversation these days about women in action movies. Cynthia Rothrock was leading the way in this field decades ago. But it wasn’t only her on the scene of course. Other female martial artists, perhaps to a lesser extent but still significant, were also a part of this movement.
Case in point, Women’s Black Belt Forms Champion, Karen Sheperd, who was also a real-life opponent for Rothrock in national forms competitions.
In “Righting Wrongs”, Rothrock and Sheperd battle in an unbelievably high-octane and athletic encounter, and it’s not only fists and feet that are utilised. Rothrock uses wushu staff techniques against Sheperd’s chain whip – the weapon Sheperd is most known for.
Rothrock is usually delivering punishment to men in her movies so it’s fun to see her take on a woman with high-level skills. The result is an unforgettable all-woman clash that has rarely, if ever, been technically bettered to this day.
When martial arts enthusiasts argue about who the greatest female martial arts star is, almost certainly they will be arguing about whether it’s Rothrock or Michelle Yeoh. As amazing and beloved as Michelle Yeoh is, personally I think Rothrock wins out.
But whomever your favourite is, what a treat it is to see both of them onscreen together, teaming up to lay the smackdown in the final fight of “Yes, Madam”.
After they dispatch the lower level thugs, with Rothrock using wushu staff techniques, they also each get to fight solo. Rothrock takes on Dick Wei in high speed hand-to-hand combat during which she gives him a sting of what would become her trademark scorpion kick.
Directed by Corey Yuen and produced by Sammo Hung, “Police Assassins” (aka “Yes, Madam”, along with being Rothrock’s first movie to kick-start her long career, also inspired a new wave of female-led action movies by Hong Kong film companies.
…and in at #1 is…
Lady Dragon (1992) – vs Richard Norton
Back to “Lady Dragon” and a one-on-one showdown with Richard Norton who plays a frightening-looking character called Ludwig Hauptman.
When planning this fight, the word “epic” must have been used a lot. It’s got a real David vs Goliath feel to it, reminiscent of “Kickboxer”. Also, not only is it the longest fight, duration wise on this list, it’s also the most brutal with Rothrock’s character taking some bone-crunching hits, getting thoroughly bloodied and bruised. To make it even more powerful, the fight has reversals, slow-motion and even some soaring music.
It’s also fascinating to see the style of fighting used by Rothrock and Norton in “Lady Dragon” compared to their fights in “Magic Crystal” and the difference between Hong Kong and American fight scenes. Here it is more karate and kickboxing based compared to the kung fu-wushu style of their Hong Kong movie battles, demonstrating the diversity of their fighting techniques. The synergy they’ve developed over their long years of collaboration makes all the moves fit and that’s why it tops this list.