Cynthia Rothrock: one of the greatest martial artists in cinema history

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Action has been associated with the history of cinema since the very beginning, with many of the pioneers of the silent era changing the medium forever through their works. In fact, that’s precisely why Buster Keaton is repeatedly brought up when we talk about the greatest action stars of all time. His unique brand of physical comedy, which was reconfigured by the likes of Jackie Chan, is still being studied by aspiring actors and filmmakers to this day.

That same spirit, combined with the rich history of martial arts in narrative forms, made Hong Kong cinema so special and gave it a unique identity. When we discuss the supremely talented artists who worked there, names like Michelle Yeoh, who experienced an added boost of popularity after Everything Everywhere All At Once, immediately pop up in conversations. One actor whose contributions unfortunately don’t get nearly the same amount of attention is Cynthia Rothrock.

Born in Delaware and having grown up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Rothrock’s career trajectory is actually fascinating. Starting with karate training at the age of 13 and soon receiving specialised guidance from a master, she entered a domain that was almost completely male-dominated at the time. Interestingly, that is exactly what motivated her to continue pushing herself until she gained a mastery over it that far exceeded most of her peers.

During a conversation about her career, Rothrock reflected on how that affected her at the beginning: “The best thing for me that I’ve taken from martial arts is whenever I first started it was very hard, and I was the only girl in the class. I felt very uncoordinated; I couldn’t punch, I couldn’t shout, and all these guys were there. Martial arts taught me never to accept failure and not to be a quitter.”

When we think about the modern action hero, the emphasis is always placed on other areas of their skill set because many think that the sequences themselves can be fixed in editing. Rothrock found herself coming into the world of cinema from the other end of the spectrum, having won multiple world championships in martial arts categories that had no gender divisions at the time. She was, and was always going to be, a martial artist first.

In the same interview, Rothrock explained how the Asian martial arts gems were ahead of the curve: “Hong Kong action has always shown more diversity and created action that nobody had really seen before. Then The Matrix came out and we saw all this different kind of action, except it wasn’t really anything new because Hong Kong had been doing it for years and years.”

It was the Hong Kong industry that gave Rothrock a place to demonstrate her true talents, having been recognised by the legendary Sammo Hung. Her first major project, the 1985 action flick Yes, Madam, saw her feature alongside none other than Michelle Yeoh after having drawn the attention of studio executives following an impressive audition in which they were only looking for male stars. Once they saw Rothrock in action, there was no going back.

What followed was a string of Hong Kong action movies that established her as a major star in the region, including the likes of Millionaires Express and Righting Wrongs. Maintaining her own while performing incredibly well in segments featuring the likes of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, there is a certain grace and fluidity to Rothrock’s movements that elevate her status as a fighter far beyond many of her more well-known contemporaries.

Unlike the action stars who gravitated from Hong Kong and made it big in Hollywood, the American industry was never able to give Rothrock the same kind of platform to shine. Where Hong Kong producers had recognised her talent as a martial artist, their Hollywood counterparts wrote Rothrock off because they thought she didn’t have the star appeal.

There was a time when she drew comparisons to Steven Seagal, which might be the most insulting association imaginable for a real martial artist. While Seagal’s legacy is now defined by the lies and fraud he propagated throughout his miserable career that tragically drew more eyes to it, Rothrock’s glorious 1980s run in Hong Kong will always be fondly remembered by fans as evidence of one of the greatest action stars in history being at her very best.

Watch a compilation of some of Cynthia Rothrock’s most memorable action sequences below.

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