I've yet to watch a movie starring Cynthia Rothrock that wasn't rife with peculiarities, and at that, usually all the same ones. Her films are generally blunt and over the top in most significant aspects, including writing and acting if not also direction, and often ham-handed and inauthentic on top. She's not uncommonly no more than second fiddle in her own starring vehicles - and yet for all that, the fight choreography is broadly well done. It's an odd mixture at all times, and 'Martial law' doesn't try hard to convince us that it's any different. From excessive sound cues (such "whooshes" as fists or feet flying through the air or hitting their marks), to massively done-up and visually distinct hair, makeup, or costume design; from small, gratuitous flourishes, to an enjoyable but curious score from Elliot Solomon that oscillates between guitar fireworks, fanfare that wouldn't sound out of place opening 'Saturday Night Live,' and synth-driven ambient pieces - there's a lot going on here. Most prominent actor Chad McQueen, playing actual protagonist Thompson, really does look like a Joe Piscopo impersonator; a scene set in a nightclub features a very 80s hair metal band and song (accordingly Tempest, performing "Sauza" - I won't lie, I liked it); and there's a brusqueness to the execution of some action sequences that somewhat defies suspension of disbelief.
Through it all, I'm surprised to find myself thinking that 'Martial law' is, in some ways, better than I anticipated. Maybe it's director Steve Cohen's guidance of the cast that we have to thank, but the acting feels unexpectedly restrained and sober compared to other Rothrock films. For all the flair here and there, including sequencing and otherwise editing that echoes that cheeky tenor, it almost seems like the production is played straight, declining the greater bombast we're used to seeing from her and those with whom she shares the screen. David Carradine, Philip Tan, John Fujioka - and yes, even Rothrock - all show glimmers of real nuance in their acting that's a far cry from the tomfoolery we saw in, say, 'Honor and glory,' or 'Tiger claws.' Even when performances are overdone (for better or worse I'm looking at you, Vincent Craig Dupree), it's unmistakably intentional, and though he has a small part, it's always a minor joy to see Professor Toru Tanaka. The cinematography and sound design are crisp and clear, the orchestration of every shot and scene is suitable - honestly, in a lot of ways, 'Martial laws seems pretty well made.
The biggest question,though, is of course the writing. Richard Brandes doesn't have a lot of credits to his name in that capacity, with one of the few others being this picture's sequel. There's no substantial depth to most characters, and they mostly fill familiar action-thriller crime flick archetypes. There's occasional cleverness to the dialogue, but so much of it just feels unremarkable and downright uninteresting. The scene writing is a little stronger, but varies wildly in accordance with the needs of the story - some bits seem well thought out and work to engage our attention, advance the plot, or enrich the experience as a whole, while other instances just feel overblown or unnecessary. And as to that plot: it's complete, coherent, and cohesive. It's also oafishly slow and meandering as it switches gears at intervals from criminal enterprise, to criminal investigation, to family drama, and back again, with martial arts sprinkled throughout. For that matter: apart from some key scenes, the cinema-ready disciplines are weirdly deemphasized in the screenplay, letting the other elements take precedence to the disadvantage of 'Martial law' - while antagonist Rhoades' (Carradine) signature finishing move is overused until it fails to provide invigoration. The result of it all is a title that's hard to get excited about, not least of all as the core plot doesn't seem to go much of anywhere until the last third of the runtime, and even then it comes and goes with minimal impact.
The feature has a leg up on some of its brethren when it comes to technical craft, so I suppose that's worth something. But even if we generously put aside the major dearth of screen time for top-billed Rothrock, which still blows my mind, there's still so little about the movie that inspires, or gets the blood flowing. As the length lackadaisically saunters to the climax - and a final fight that is admittedly quite well done - one can't help but ask what it was all for. Everyone involved does their part, more or less - so what? I'd much sooner watch a romp buzzing with ridiculous, exaggerated ham-handedness and questionable construction than a solidly built snooze. Unfortunately, by and large, that's just what we get in 'Martial law,' and I wonder if I'm not being too kind in my assessment as it stands.
What's kind of sad is that it really didn't have to be this way. More than anything else, all the feature needed was more martial arts - and, once more to highlight, more Rothrock - to improve upon the actual finished product. Oh well. Cautiously recommendable for martial arts fanatics and utmost fans of the cast, and halfheartedly enjoyable for those receptive to all the wide variety that cinema has to offer. There's just no need to seek this out, though, and actively keep your expectations in check if you decide to sit for it nonetheless.
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