Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 20/06/2000.
Producer Lee Goldberg wrote me a very nice email about this article - "I laughed my ass off" - and he even had it reprinted on his website for a while (don't look for it, it's not there any more). Series 1 of Martial Law still turns up on TV now and again: series 2 tends to get repeated less frequently, mainly because the climax of the season involves a villainous plot to crash a passenger jet into a building. It seemed cooler back in 2000.
"Fucking America! Goddamn America!"
It's easy to see why Sammo Hung and his colleagues are a little peeved in the final scene of Eastern Condors. Up until recently, they were a group of Chinese criminals languishing in American prisons for a variety of crimes. When the US Army offered them their freedom in exchange for taking part in a secret military mission, they jumped at the chance. So they were sent into Vietnam during the vinegar strokes of the conflict, with orders to destroy a secret American arms cache before the VC discovered it.
Unfortunately, they didn't realise that Eastern Condors - directed by Sammo himself in 1987 - was basically a Hong Kong rip-off of The Dirty Dozen. If they'd known that, they'd probably have realised that the mission was bound to go tits-up within seconds of its commencing, and would result in the death of virtually everyone involved. By the time the arms cache has been successfully destroyed, the original team of twelve is down to three survivors - Sammo, Yuen Biao and a third guy who plays the character Ta Hai. It's really annoying that I can't find out the third guy's name, because he's the reason why I'm telling you all this. As the three of them wait for an American airlift that may or may not be on its way, Ta Hai cracks and starts yelling at the top of his voice in a mixture of Chinese and English, the latter language being the only way he can express his hatred of those responsible for his plight.
"This is all down to the Americans! Fucking America! Goddamn America!"
Sammo tries to change the subject in an attempt to calm him down. "And if the plane does arrive, where will you go?"
Ta Hai can barely get the answer out through his rage. "America! Where else?"
Dame Irony is, indeed, a cold and heartless bitch of a mistress. And so it transpired that ten years after Eastern Condors, a large proportion of the Hong Kong movie industry had to decamp to America with a similar degree of reluctance. With the rulership of Hong Kong passing over in 1997 from the British to the Chinese, many directors and stars felt the chances of their movie industry surviving the handover were limited, and they headed off to Hollywood to see how things went for them over there.
For a while it seemed as if every emigre Hong Kong film director had to first prove themselves by making a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Happily, John Woo survived the experience of Hard Target and is currently riding high on the success of Mission Impossible 2. Meanwhile, stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat have all found successful Hollywood vehicles for their undoubted talents. And even the unsung heroes of Hong Kong cinema - the action choreographers - have made their impact, as Yuen Wu Ping used his traditional mixture of good kung fu and blokes being hurled around on wires to make the fight scenes in The Matrix truly astonishing. (As I write, he's trying to do the same on the movie remake of Charlie's Angels, which according to current rumour may be the closest thing to a working definition of the phrase 'polishing a turd' you'll find anywhere.)
But curiously, one man who's performed all three of the above jobs in countless movies hasn't really made it in American cinema yet. Sammo Hung's entry in the Internet Movie Database is a thing of extraordinary magnitude: up to 1997 he'd acted in 96 movies, directed 37, and choreographed the action on 14. To Hong Kong movie fans he's best known for carefully mixing broad slapstick comedy with his kung fu action: an easy thing to do when you're as chubby as he is. (To the locals, he's affectionately known as The Portly Kicker.) He can even claim a direct link to the master Bruce Lee: next time you watch Enter The Dragon, look out for a young Sammo having the shite kicked out of him by Bruce in the opening exhibition bout. And yet the stardom that Sammo's former colleague Jackie Chan has achieved in movies has somehow eluded him.
Instead, he's taken a different route. Ladies and gentlemen, here's TV's Sammo Hung!
The premise of Martial Law is almost Zen in its simplicity, and was quickly set up in its first episode in Autumn 1998. Sammo Hung plays Sammo Law, a Shanghai cop and world class martial artist. We first meet him pursuing arch-criminal Lee Hei (Tzi Ma) across Shanghai, only to discover that he's buggered off to America. Sammo takes the first flight out to Los Angeles, and enlists the help of the LAPD's Major Crimes Unit: specifically, Lieutenant Benjamin Winship (played by Tom Wright) and fellow cops Dana Doyle (Tammy Lauren) and Louis Malone (Louis Mandylor). Culture-clash gags and elaborately choreographed fights ensue.
Which is a pretty solid formula as far as it goes: except one thing you learn pretty quickly about Martial Law as you watch the first series is that the producers weren't afraid to rejig the cast if it looked like the show wasn't working. The first surprise came as early as episode two, when it was revealed that one of Lee Hei's gang - Grace 'Pei Pei' Chen (Kelly Hu) - was in fact an undercover cop and former colleague of Sammo's. By the end of the episode she'd become part of the team, looking rather sexy and proving to be nearly as good in a ruck as Sammo.
Grace's arrival left Dana rather surplus to requirements. However, her exit from the series between episodes six and seven was almost Stalinist in its efficiency: she just vanished from the show, and nobody ever mentioned that she'd even existed in the first place. (Well, that's at least how I remember it. My pal Smudge the Cat claims that one episode contains a throwaway line along the lines of "Just got another postcard from Dana in Texas: she's really enjoying being a ranger.") It was a fascinating insight into the brutal reality of working in a ratings-based environment like US TV. It wouldn't be the last.
The next cast change was even more cynical, but by God it worked. Over a period of five episodes a new supporting character was gradually brought in: Tyrell Parker, played by former Eddie Murphy associate Arsenio Hall. Initially brought in as a public relations man for the LAPD on account of his quick wit and ability to think on his feet, Parker starts working alongside Sammo on undercover cases, eventually becoming a full-time member of the squad. This coincides roughly with Sammo Hung and Arsenio Hall receiving joint top billing in the opening credits. So by 1999, Martial Law had been transformed into a show about a Chinese martial artist cop and his wise-cracking black partner. Which bears a slight resemblance to the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker movie hit of the previous year, Rush Hour, about a Chinese martial artist cop and his wise-cracking black partner. Still, Jackie and Sammo go way back, so I assume it wasn't too much of a problem.
The rest of season 1 progressed within a fairly rigid template. Medium-sized pre-credits fight. Credits. Establish plot, usually during interrogation of henchman captured during preceding fight. Have lead bad guy kill henchman for blabbing, to establish his badness. More plot, usually involving revelation of tragic incident from a leading character's past. Small fight involving Grace or other non-Sammo cast member. Wrap up plot. Huge fight involving everybody. Closing gag. Comedy out-takes from episode (a Jackie Chan tradition that's transferred nicely to TV). End credits. And strung throughout all this is Sammo's continuing pursuit of Lee Hei, climaxing in the season finale where the two of them have a stand-up fight in an airborne helicopter, and Lee Hei falls out, and Sammo grabs hold of him to try and save him, and he falls out too, and...
...and let's back up a minute and explain why a piece of pre-fabricated trash TV like this is such a joy to watch.
Sure, it's formulaic: generic cop show plots, and fight scenes so calculatingly positioned in the narrative that you could set your watch by them. And the way that off-screen contractual haggles are so blatantly visible in the on-screen story, you start to wonder if this is naivety on the part of the producers or a tongue-in-cheek admission that this is how network television works.
But in the end, the success of the show is down to the characters. If it was just a question of having a cop show with a few kung fu fights in it, we'd end up with Walker Texas Ranger, and I'm sure none of us wants that. So Martial Law stands or falls on its two leads and the chemistry between them. It's generally acccepted that Hall was brought in to give the show some verbal dexterity that Sammo, frankly, couldn't provide: and his way with a gag and willingness to make himself look silly for a quick laugh are evidence that this was a good move, while avoiding the sharpened-fingernails-down-a-blackboard quality of Chris Tucker's equivalent role in Rush Hour. But that doesn't take into account Sammo's personal charm. He's obviously a great acrobat and physical comic presence, but he also manages to be totally convincing in the show's more downbeat moments. His slow, heavily accented English isn't a problem - it actually makes the character of Sammo Law rather endearing, particularly when he reveals the ferocious policing intelligence behind it.
Martial Law is also fascinating for its treatment of race: after all, at its season 1 close, the featured cast was 2/5 Chinese, 2/5 African-American and 1/5 Latino. This is never made into a big issue: it's just the way things are. There's only been one sub-plot in the show to date that's been racially motivated: a white cop who tries to pick a fight with Sammo on his first day in the MCU, and ends up being twatted with a blackboard eraser and sent to work in Shanghai in Sammo's place for his pains. And even then, there was a rather sweet payoff when the racist cop ended up redeeming himself six episodes later, acting as Sammo's Shanghai contact to help him solve a case back in LA.
The show's best race gag is to repeatedly play with our expectations. Sammo spent his life in China: he's now in LA: ergo, there will be lots of amusing scenes where he encounters an alien aspect of American culture and will be confused by it. This never happens. Time and again we're set up to expect a fish-out-of-water response from Sammo, only to be confounded by his knowledge and experience of Western culture: which is only to be expected from a Shanghai resident, living as he did in one of the most Westernised cities in the PRC. A typical example is the scene in the first episode where Sammo manages to furnish his new flat through items he wins on The Price Is Right, knowing all the prices because he's seen the show on Chinese satellite TV.
In exchange for this, the show has a reciprocal respect for Chinese culture. When a supporting Chinese character is killed towards the end of season 1, the traditional funeral is dealt with in some depth and with explanations of the rites for a Western audience. It doesn't feel like a bit of exotic colour thrown in for effect, but a genuine attempt at cultural exchange. And if this show really was just an excuse for a bunch of big kung fu fights, we wouldn't have the sequences where the story stops to allow a stressed Sammo to calm himself with a tai chi session. But having said all that, the fights - arranged by Jackie Chan collaborator Stanley Tong - are tremendous, with the pace and wild improvisation you'd expect from Hong Kong cinema. Sammo, like Jackie, is probably past his physical peak now, but the action scenes still piss all over the usual TV fare, as any object within reach is brought into play as a weapon.
So anyway, back to the plot. Season 2 started in the US in 1999. At the time of writing (June 2000), Channel 5 have just started showing it in the UK at 8pm on Sunday nights, and it's pretty much the only thing you could possibly want to watch on the channel (unless you have some sort of morbid desire to see Keith Chegwin's cock). We left the show at the end of season 1 with Sammo and Lee Hei falling out of a helicopter. Since then, partly due to a new cluster of producers coming on board, two of the regular cast - Louis and Winship - have left, the latter being replaced by new squad boss Amy Dylan (Gretchen Egolf). In a move which recalls the glory days of Dana's departure, none of these events are initially mentioned at all, as the series charges straight into a hysterical parody of Speed - where the explosives-rigged bus is replaced by an explosives-rigged fat Chinese bloke. The departure of three major characters (including the death of Lee Hei) and the miraculous survival of Sammo are alluded to later in four lines of incidental dialogue. This is a disregard of the rules of narrative fiction so spectacular as to be worthy of Jean-Luc Godard. I'm hooked all over again...
Sadly, even this rejigging wasn't enough to pull in American audiences, and the plug was pulled on Martial Law at the end of season 2. But they're already rerunning it on CBS, and we Brits can settle down to watching it all for the first time on Sunday nights for the next five months. And it's probably safe to say that Sammo Hung will bounce back from this mishap, probably while doing a triple backflip and taking out three bad guys with a toilet plunger. After all, he was born in the year of the Rabbit, and as such possesses a strong will and quiet self-assurance. Not that I'd know anything about that. Being a Monkey, and all.
CBS have a Martial Law [dead link] section on their site: even though they aren't making new episodes, they'll keep you up to date with where they are in the reruns, and give you some nice behind-the-scenes info on the show.
Channel 5 have a British equivalent Martial Law [dead link] mini-site, with the usual episode information and biographies. But you also get a magnificently silly Martial Law Shockwave game, where you help Sammo "make the world a better place" by slapping the crap out of an array of minor league British celebs.
This Martial Law fan page [dead link] could well be of use to some people. After all, why should I assume that you can only read English?
The official Sammo Hung site is basically a fan page that got official backing from the man himself. Lots of nice pictures and info are available, and even a couple of Sammo's favourite recipes [dead link]. Plus if you feel inspired by this article to help save Martial Law, the webmaster's supplied the email addresses of assorted TV execs who may be able to help.
Lee Goldberg is one of the new producers who came on board for the second season, and a section of his site is dedicated to his work on Martial Law [dead link]. Lots of pictures and useful info (including a reprint of a surprisingly familiar review...), but be warned he's assuming that you've already seen season 2 and casually gives away its ending, the bastard. Still, you also get to see a couple of the scripts he's written for the show, including season 2 opener Sammo Blammo. A wicked Speed spoof and some of the hardest working expository dialogue in showbusiness, intentionally or otherwise. [Also available, and fascinating: the writers' guidelines for the show.]
Johnson Lau's Chinese Horoscopes [dead link] are included here for entertainment purposes only.