Shitty Movie Sundays: Martial Law (1990)

Chad McQueen is Sean ‘Martial Law’ Thompson, and Cynthia Rothrock is vice squad officer Billie Blake. They kick ass, take names, and cohabitate in Martial Law, the 1990 direct-to-video action flick from screenwriter Richard Brandes and director Steve Cohen.

Viewers may remember McQueen as the Kobra Kai with the dyed blond hair in the original Karate Kid. It turns out, the man wasn’t faking it. He has some karate skill, and turned it towards a fairly decent career in shitty movies. And, if one doesn’t know who Cynthia Rothrock is, one is still in the fledgling stage of shitty movie fandom.

The bad guy in this flick is Dalton Rhodes, played by David Carradine. He was milking some of his Kung Fu cred in playing this bad guy, as he, like Sean and Billie, is a martial arts master. He has additional bad guy bona fides in that he has perfected a technique whereby he can punch someone in the chest and make their heart stop. Sean and Billie get put on Dalton’s trail after Sean’s younger brother, Michael (Andy McCutcheon), begins work for Dalton stealing high-end automobiles.

Michael is the black sheep of the Thompson clan, in and out of trouble with the law since he was a teen. Sean, as a big brother is wont to do, protects his little bro, but all this really does is lead Michael to believe there aren’t any consequences for his actions, leading him deeper into the underworld.

Throughout the film, Sean and Billie fight their way into Dalton’s organization, leading to exactly the kind of ass-kicking climax one would expect from a movie like this.

This is not a good movie. But it is entertaining. Just about every member of the cast who has more than two lines has some martial arts skills, and even some of the extras come with swinging legs and flying fists. Most satisfying, the cast did their own fight work.

This was Cohen’s first feature as director, after spending the 1980s assisting the likes of Richard Donner and Joseph Zito, and working in television. Along the way, he picked up on how to keep a film moving along, something very important in a film Martial Law 1990 movie posterwith one-dimensional characters and an even thinner plot. There are imperfections aplenty, but no more than is acceptable in a direct-to-video cheapie.

As for the cast, Carradine looked like he was having a ball. Too often, an actor with a name will show up in a movie like this and mail it in. Not Carradine. He approached his role with gusto, his character getting sick enjoyment out of all the misery he spreads.

McQueen and Rothrock don’t approach Carradine’s level of acting skill. That’s not what they were cast for. Their job is to kick ass. Sure, there are multiple Sonny Corleone-style phantom punches in every fight scene, and the ratio of skilled fighters to regular folk is skewed way too far, but it does not matter. This flick is called Martial Law, and that’s what viewers get.

It’s a strange fictional world where the police and gangsters are all martial arts disciples rather than gun-toting pseudo-soldiers. It’s also a lot more fun than the reality. Put down the guns, people. Both sides. Life is better when people kick each other in the face instead of popping off shots. That’s not the moral message of this movie, but it should be.

Martial Law is as good a way as any to spend an hour and half without using one’s brain. It slots into the mediocre middle of the Watchability Index. It’s neither true howler nor test of endurance. It just is. Martial Law displaces Hellraiser VIII from the #185 spot.

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