Saturday, 5 December 2009

Sworn to Justice (1996)

Chun Li weeps with jealousy when she sees
Rothrock's meaty thighs

I've already discussed how Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kurt McKinney, like a couple of deadbeat dads, abandoned the No Retreat, No Surrender series while it was still in it's infancy. We all know what happened to Van Damme (Bloodsport etc), but if you're anything like me you frequently wake up in a cold sweat wondering what happened to Kurt McKinney. Well, throughout the 80s he made some TV appearances on shows like ALF and General Hospital and for the past 8 years he's been on some soap opera called The Guiding Light, but I don't care about any of that shit. What about movies where he kicks bad guys in the head? Well, the only other action film he's been in since then is Sworn to Justice, where he plays love interest/sidekick to B-movie regular Cynthia Rothrock.

Rothrock plays Janna, a criminal psychologist who returns home from a trip to find her sister and nephew murdered, victims of a botched burglary. What's more, the attackers are still in the house, and after fighting them off she leaps from the balcony and crashes through the trees, getting smacked in the head with a tree branch on her way down. After she coalesces she discovers that she has developed psychometry, the ability to receive psychic impressions of somebody by touching their possessions. Like in all TV shows/movies about psychics, the visions are in black and white with a dutch tilt and annoying editing. She decides to use this ability, plus her martial arts skills, to enact vigilante justice on the people that murdered her loved ones. So it's is like Medium with more vigilante justice and roundhouse kicks.

I thought it her character's occupation was pretty unusual for this type of film. She works for a some sort of law firm/forensics lab and it's her job to give psychological assessments of criminals and determine whether they are fit for trial or require psychiatric treatment. In most vigilante films she would be one of the weaselly, criminal-coddling liberals perverting the justice system but here she's the hero. I don't think it's supposed to be ironic and she doesn't abandon her liberal beliefs like Paul Kersey in Death Wish. She believes it's her duty to give fair and unbiased advice despite the meddling of the prosecution and the defence. Good for her.

During her investigation she falls for a new coworker named Nicholas (McKinney). This guy is interested in Asian culture and has one of those goofy apartments that combines random architectural and decorative elements from a bunch of different Asian cultures, and ends up coming off as patronising rather than tributary. He is interested in martial arts too, and soon after she gives him a kung fu demonstration in her sexy night attire they are rolling around naked in front of an open fire with cheesy saxophone music playing in the background. This is followed by another sex scene later on. To be honest this film shows a lot more of Rothrock that I was after.

It really bugs me when they try to turn Cynthia Rothrock into a sex symbol. It's not that she's pushing forty (she actually looks pretty awesome for her age) or hugely unattractive or even that she's short and kind of stocky. It's that she's Cynthia fucking Rothrock; she should be kicking ass, not slinking around in lingerie and little black evening dresses. She's above that shit. It's like when they put Jet Li in sunglasses. It really doesn't help that Rothrock doesn't really have the acting skill to sell the romance either. I don't think anyone could sell risible cliches like "Is it hot in here or is it just me?" but Rothrock and McKinney definitely can't.

The men responsible for the murders are a bunch of ex-cons led by a boy-band reject named, hilariously, Eugene (Ken Scott). He's shorter than Rothrock so he must be about 4 feet tall, like a hobbit, so I find it hard to believe that this well-groomed douchebag commands respect from these guys. Although to be fair some of these guys look pretty dorky, like the lanky doofus wearing an eyepatch. Eugene takes his orders from the mysterious Mr. Big, whose identity is so ridiculously obvious I was convinced there must be some sort of third-act twist on the way (which there wasn't).

Basically the movie is a series of action scenes where Janna uses her psychic powers to track down the different scumbags responsible and murders them. Nicholas finds out about her vigilante rampage and espouses a pacifist viewpoint, but whatever, you know he's going to help her out by the end of the movie. Everything in between is padded out with some boring sub-plots and a bunch of minor characters. There's an asshole cop named Briggs (Tony Lo Bianco). There's her boss Lorraine (Katie Mitchell), who seems nice but mysteriously follows her around making scowly faces. There's a wise, blind newspaper man named Mr Young (Mako). There's also her mentor (Walter Koenig), who's a psychiatrist so of course he speaks with an outrageous German accent.

One of the subplots involves her giving expert opinion in a case involving a cop-killer. Even though the prosecution are looking to nail him to the wall, she is adamant that he requires psychiatric care rather than jail time. Well, it turns out that the nutball defendant Teddy is played by Brad Dourif (which is awesome and a good use of his Nick-Cage-like ability to over act) and when she fondles the murder weapon she discovers that he had something to do her sister's murder. She uses her psychic powers freak him out and pump him for information.

After blowing up Eugene's brother, Janna battles her way to Eugene's crims-only nightclub for the ultimate showdown. There's a pretty amusing touch here when Eugene gives a short speech and then spins around a chair to reveal his brother's crispy, blackened corpse dressed in a new suit and a terrible blonde wig. I suppose that before she arrived these guys dressed up the corpse, propped it up in a chair and then just sat around having a few drinks. Everybody mourns differently, I guess. Also the corpse blinks a few times, so noticeably that I wondered if he was supposed to be alive somehow.

Eugene and Janna then have a mediocre nun chucks vs sticks battle (there's a lot more show-offy twirling than actual fighting) which is interrupted by the reveal of Mr. Big's identity. When things look hopeless Nicholas busts in and a bad guy grabs his shirt, which tears away like stripper pants so he can whip ass without a shirt on. Unfortunately Janna doesn't deliver the final blow to Eugene, that honour goes to Nicholas while Janna chases down Mr Big on the roof. Nicholas ends up taking a bullet in the shoulder for Janna and Mr. Big completes his movie villain checklist by falling through a glass atrium roof to his death.

After watching the fast paced, Hong Kong styled action of the No Retreat, No Surrender series, I'd forgotten just how slow and boring most American martial arts films are (or at least were) in comparison. Most of the fights here are slow, over-edited and unimpressive. Sure this film was made nearly ten years after Rothrock's Hong Kong heyday, but this is nowhere near films like Yes, Madam or The Inspector Wears Skirts. The only times the film comes close to recapturing that era is during a fight with a little Asian guy in a garage and when she stumbles upon a convenience store robbery Seagal-style and defeats them using a roll of duct tape. Even the latter fight is ruined by awful cartoon sound effects, including tweeting birds when someone is dazed. I can't say I've seen too many of Rothrock's American films, but apparently this is considered one of the better ones. If that's the case I'm not sure I want to see any more.

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