Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We look back on highlights of the DTV action craze—some of the coolest, wildest, and most entertaining action movies to skip theaters entirely.
American martial arts champion Cynthia Rothrock was arguably the first female action star in the vein of Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal. After launching her acting career in Hong Kong, where she starred in movies like Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam (1985) alongside then-newcomer Michelle Yeoh, Rothrock returned stateside and emerged as a direct-to-video leading lady at the height of the home video boom of the late ’80s and ’90s. She never achieved the popularity and name-recognition of her male counterparts, but the blonde bombshell was a regular, and a unique female presence, in the profitable world of martial arts DTV. Her greatest hits—like China O’Brien (1988), Lady Dragon (1990), and Undefeatable (1993)—are campy B-grade schlock that lean heavily on her physicality. Paul Maslak’s Sworn To Justice, a much later entry in Rothrock’s oeuvre, is no exception. At the same time, the movie’s kooky cross-genre approach and unexpectedly heavy dose of eroticism singles it out as the action star’s boldest effort.
Criminal psychologist Janna Dane (Rothrock) comes home one night to find her sister and nephew brutally murdered by a gang of ex-cons; she fends them off in a tight skirt-suit and flesh-tearing stilettos before leaping out a window and hitting her head. Practically every Rothrock movie is about serving vigilante justice on murderers and rapists, but this time her karate skills aren’t her only weapon. Thanks to the injury, Janna wakes up the next morning conveniently endowed with ESP abilities; she simply touches an object to access monochrome visions of others’ deepest traumas and secrets. Tony Lo Bianco, best known for his role in The Honeymoon Killers (1970), plays the leering Detective Briggs, who’s tasked with solving the murder mystery but too distracted by Janna’s hot bod and the pleasures of civilian intimidation to make much progress. Janna winds up as the expert witness in the trial of a mentally disturbed cop-killer, and by night she transforms into a black-hooded superhero, targeting members of a crime syndicate she suspects of being involved in her family’s murder.
Janna wears many hats as a crime-fighting psychic with a Ph.D., and Sworn To Justice matches that eclecticism with just as many outlandish subplots. One minute it’s a courtroom drama, the next The Dead Zone, and after that a goofy slapstick comedy with bad guys knocked around like coconuts. Maslak isn’t exactly adept at balancing out these elements, but the sheer randomness is oddly mesmerizing, and never boring. The movie also boasts an unusually high number of cameos from B-movie action stars; Rothrock must’ve called in a few favors from her inner circle to get kickboxing pro and Deathmatch star Ian Jacklin to show up just to get thrown out of a window within seconds. Also floating around is DTV director Art Camacho; Flesh Gordon himself, Vince Murdocco, from Flesh Gordon Meets The Cosmic Cheerleaders; and No Retreat, No Surrender 2 star Max Thayer as an office schmoozer in a bolo tie. Meanwhile, former Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Kenn Scott plays perverted crime kingpin Eugene, who delivers the movie’s best one-liner when he threatens to “rip the flesh from [Janna’s] creamy thighs.”
Compared to Rothrock’s past movies, this one’s less interested in packing as many fight scenes as possible into its slim running time. That might explain its many detours, the most surprising of which is not one but two racy sex scenes set to cheesy Latin instrumentals. Rothrock was never one to show too much skin, perhaps because she intuited that audiences would take her less seriously as a martial artist and an avenger figure if she emphasized her sexuality. Sworn To Justice breaks from this approach by involving Janna with Nicholas (Kurt McKinney), a dreamy, younger-looking co-worker who declares his love for her almost immediately. Their first sex scene, a fusion of martial arts and foreplay, is the movie’s pièce de résistance; Janna performs a kata in the manner of a striptease, tossing her leg up into standing splits before engaging Nicholas in a suggestive sparring match, the camera expressing equal interest in both actors’ sculpted, muscular bodies. The signature “Rothrock sting,” or scorpion kick, comes out in the final showdown, but none of the straightforward fight scenes compare to Rothrock’s sexy kata, which unabashedly owns the inherent eroticism of martial arts movies. Already an action movie veteran at the time of Sworn To Justice’s release, Rothrock must’ve sensed it was time to retire the chaste heroine for a new, sexually liberated image and a character no longer concerned with being one of the boys.
Availability: Sworn to Justice is available on Amazon Prime with a subscription.