Sunday, May 05, 2013

What Happened to MARTIAL LAW? By Dr. Craig Reid

At this point, I plan to discuss, critique or comment on Chinese filmmakers that have either recently made the transition to Hollywood or Hollywood's current exploitation of Chinese filmmakers. For example, when it comes to CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON or CHARLIE'S ANGELS, been there, done that, seen it. Just look at that final fight scene in ANGELS, where Barrymore takes on 4 baddies. Shot for shot and gag for gag, it's the exact same fight in Yuen Woo Ping's IRON MONKEY, where Huang Fei Hong's wife fights 4 renegade monks. I've seen over 3000 martial art films dating back to the 60's, so if a fight scene has been done, there's is a good chance I've seen it.

Which brings us to today's column. What happened to MARTIAL LAW? For those of you that came in late, if you were one of the 11 million Americans who tuned in every week to MARTIAL LAW, a kung-fu cop series that quickly carved out a niche in the Nielsen ratings, you witnessed Hong Kong film legend Sammo Hung (Sammo Law) performing some of the most outrageous fight scenes ever seen on American TV. In case you didn't know, MARTIAL LAW was the highest rated new drama series for the fall '98 television season and the show lay claim to international success as the best new British TV program in 1999 with sales of over 2 million video tapes of the pilot in China. No other American show in TV history can claim that statistic. Furthermore, MARTIAL LAW won its time slot every week for each new, premiered episode. Yet CBS still pulled the plug. Who said ratings are everything?

The first season revolved around Law, a one-man Shanghai police department who arrives in LA to track down his protege, Chen Pei Pei (aka Grace), played by the former Miss Hawaii, Kelly Hu. Under the watchful eye of Lt. Ben Winship (Tom Wright), Sammo teams up with two L.A. detectives: Louis Malone (Louis Mandylor) and Dana Dickson (Tammy Lauren). Pei Pei's character's name was a nod to one of Hong Kong's most famous first ladies of kung-fu cinema, Cheng Pei Pei, whose daughter Eugenia did a cameo towards the end of the last season.

Several episodes after the pilot, Lauren was replaced by Arsenio Hall playing Terrell Parker and Hu's character took on a bigger role while Mandylor's character took a back seat to Hall. The producers still contend that Jackie Chan's RUSH HOUR had nothing to do with hiring Hall. But of course everyone and their pet cat scoffed at that one.

However, in today's age of political correctness, it made sense to reflect the audience's pseudo-attitude by having Asian, white and black cops working together to stamp out crime. But by losing Lauren, Sammo's only true antagonist, they removed any conflict existing between the police characters. Also, Hall's last 2 sitcoms failed miserably, begging the question, "Why him?" If he'd been like RUSH HOUR's Chris Tucker, that would've worked. Instead, Hall was not funny, had no interest in learning martial arts and initially didn't want to do any fights. But that's okay because he's not known for that. Yet by downplaying Mandylor, they removed a world class boxer and martial artist from their repertoire of good fight scenes. It was also obvious that Sammo and Mandylor had great chemistry which Sammo and Hall never had. My suggestion, and I actually got the guts up to tell the producers, was to kill all these birds with one stone by replacing Hall with the rock solid Pam Grier.

Apart from Sammo's amazing experience from doing over 140 martial art oriented films, perhaps the real stars of MARTIAL LAW were the Hong Kong fight directors. In the first season, we're talking fight directing royalty such as Richard Hung (aka Yuen De), one of the original Seven Little Fortunes which also includes Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung and who did the fight choreography for classics such as DRAGON FROM RUSSIA, FONG SAI YUK, OPERATION SCORPIO and SAVIOR OF SOULS; Ailen Sit, one of Jackie's top fight assistants known Stateside as the guy in the ladder fight with Jackie in FIRST STRIKE; and Andy Cheng, who is one of Jackie's personally picked stuntmen for his last 6 films including SHANGHAI NOON and RUSH HOUR 2. In the second season, a new duo was hired; Yuen Bing, another one of the Seven Little Fortunes and who has done over 200 films (DRAGON INN, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II-V) and Dion Lam, a fight choreographer for MATRIX and for Hong Kong's all time boxoffice grossing film STORMRIDERS.

The irony and travesty here is that if you've ever seen these guys' films, you'll realize they've all drastically lowered their standards to accommodate whatever they were lacking to get the job done on MARTIAL LAW. Yet each week these guys would save the show's poor writing (the writers knew nothing about Chinese culture or tackling a Chinese character) by waving their magic scalpels to give action TV a much needed facelift which hopefully could remove the old wrinkles left by the umpteen copycat shows that claim Hong Kong stylism but in reality, woefully fail.

The final episode of the first season ended with Sammo and the show's only recurring villain, Lee Hei (Tzi Ma), plunging together, 200 feet to their death. Fans never found out what happened here. The second season started with Sammo running around an electrical power station chasing bombmakers. But this wasn't the only surprise awaiting the second season. Malone, Lee Hei, Winship and Melanie (Law's girlfriend) were all written out and two new producers entered introducing Chief of Police Amy Dylan (Gretchen Egolf), another new actor that knew nothing about action and had no interest in doing it.

So what we really had here was a lesson in complacency, copy-cat tom-foolery and an inefficient use of great Hong Kong talent wrapped in a Hollywood egg roll of rules and ignorance. I mean you have shows like WALKER, TEXAS RANGER that leaves you in a dumbfounded stupor wondering how in Bruce Lee's ghost did that ever make it. We're talking fight choreography so bad, that it looks like a bunch of beginning students from the local dojo got together over a weekend and made badly edited home videos. If one was cynical, you might think that CBS wanted a show with two Asian leads to fail, but the legions of fans still kept watching. Yet even amidst high ratings, CBS still cancelled the show. What's with that? Just like Billy Jack says, "There's a lot of stupid people in this world doing a lot of stupid things." So until next time, enjoy life, train hard and move forward.

Dr. Craig D. Reid is a writer and martial artist based in Los Angeles, California

Copied from


Martial Law was an American TV series from 1998 to 2000. The fights were beyond awesome and for American TV, it was light-years ahead... naturally as Hong Kong martial arts choreographers were behind the scenes as well as the talent and skill of Sammo Hung. Kelly Hu was sensational in this series. Too bad Louis Mandylor wasn't in more episodes. Louis' brother, Costas Mandylor, starred in 2000 on American TV, Secret Agent Man, which was pretty cool.

Anyway, the ulterior motive for this post is my intention to make animated GIF's of the fight scenes from Martial Law.

For more information:


ian mcg said...

happy to stumble on this post - my wife and I have been introducing our kids to some of the Hong Kong film we love and we were remembering Sammo's Martial law which we loved during its run. I do remember a lot of "what?" "why did..." "what happened to..." feelings while it ran. It's a shame that there wasn't more of an instinct to trust, let the show develop, but its an ever-repeating story of people trying to mold shows to fit other unrelated criteria .... and sometimes that approach works. It is odd that the show got ditched when i Was successful though. Oh well

Stickgrappler said...

Hello ian mcg:

It truly is sad that Martial Law didn't go on with more episodes... such a great show!

Thank you for you comment!

Very truly yours in MA/TV,


Just a Mustard Seed said...

My 32 year old son and I were just watching a Jackie Chan movie and it made us think of Sammo. We were wondering what happened to him, and then I found this post. It really makes me mad! I was hoping that Martial Law was taken off the air because I was the only human being in the United States (well me and my son) who liked it. Now I found out that everybody else loved it as much as we did!! Very irritating that they took it off. Thanks for letting me know. Another opportunity to be ticked off at injustices in the world!

Stickgrappler said...

Hello Just a Mustard Seed:

Thank you for your comment!

Yeah, it's a shame what happened to Martial Law. Sammo has continued making movies. He has been in some Donnie Yen movies such as SPL aka Kill Zone, and in Ip Man 2, additionally he continues to work behind the scenes as a director or as martial arts choreographer. I will be making an animated GIF set from one of his recent movies, The Bodyguard.

Thank you again for your comment! Happy 2018!

Very truly yours,



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