Imagine a world wherein direct-to-video movies could be good on purpose; wherein the cast, director, and producers actually made an effort to match Hollywood; and wherein performers who had never been seen on theater screens matched the big-name action heroes of the day. Whether I'm romanticizing things or if such a time really existed is a matter of opinion, but it's plain fact that MARTIAL LAW II is a very good low budget martial arts feature, able to match the offerings that Van Damme, Seagal, and Norris were putting out at the time and still good nowadays.
The story: The star police team of Sean Thompson (Jeff Wincott) and Billie Blake (Cynthia Rothrock) is broken up just as an ambitious lord of the underworld (Paul Johansson) rises to prominence, killing a policeman in the process. The two will have to reunite undercover to unearth the crime and expose it with their lives intact.
At the time of this one's release, the only performer who was properly established in the action genre was Cynthia Rothrock, but surprisingly, this isn't really her vehicle. She gets her share of the action, but Jeff Wincott - making his action movie debut - is the one who really takes the helm in driving the story, showing excellent poise as both a legitimate leading man and an action hero. He's supplemented by a minor super group of performers also on their way to becoming B-movie dragons: in addition to Johannson as the lead villain, there's Evan Lurie, Leo Lee, and James Lew as respectively awesome henchmen and Billy Drago as a conflicted police captain forced to go straight. Nobody's really pressured into heavy acting, but I daresay everyone performs - physically and dramatically - to the best of their ability and to the extent their roles allow them.
The fight content really shines. Be warned, Hong Kong fans, none of it is overly flashy or terribly acrobatic - it's just good, solid western martial arts action with an emphasis on kicks and minimal gunfighting. It's hard to believe that this is the first karate film Jeff Wincott ever did, considering his proficiency in varied disciplines, including forms and weapons handling; his scene with his trademark batons is particularly vicious. A few of Cynthia Rothrock's fights seem like filler despite her stellar forms, but she's afforded at least one standout battle at the end with the ever-worthy James Lew. Evan Lurie gives possibly the best martial performance of his career when he takes on two huge bodyguards in a handicap match and gets to show off just how tough he really is. Of the 'round eight or nine fights, few of them are standout material on their own but, in a rare feat, manage to come together to create a fulfilling tapestry of hand-to-hand action.
The film's production values are deserving of praise as well. All too many times when I watch a modern DTV movie, I get the impression that the filmmakers or the studio are discouraged from presenting quality production on account of their movie's relatively low distribution. MARTIAL LAW II, on the other hand, seems to have been made with the mindset that, specifically because it wasn't bound for a theatrical release, it had to try all the harder to impress viewers with its good-as-Hollywood presentation. Even the VHS cover looks like it could belong to a theatrical movie. Therein, like most action films from this era, it's a bit superficial, but what were you expecting? The story's interesting enough to keep you interested as you await the next randori and the whole package is attractive enough to interest even viewers who haven't been weaned off of the big budget productions yet. Why this one hasn't gotten a Region 1 DVD release yet is beyond me.