With her roles in Mad Max: Fury Road and now Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron is not only an Academy Award-winning actress, but also a full-on action movie star. Before Theron was helping to take down post-apocalyptic dictators in Fury Road, before former MMA champion Gina Carano was hurting your favorite leading man in Haywire, and before that Uma Thurman was separating the arms and feet of Yakuza members from their bodies in Kill Bill, there was Law Fu Lok—better known as Cynthia Rothrock.
A world champion martial artist with black belts in both Chinese (Eagle Claw, Northern Shaolin, Pai Lum Took Kung Fu) and Korean (Tang Soo Do, Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do Moo Duk) marital art styles, Rothrock was the first American woman to appear in a Hong Kong movie (action or otherwise) with the release of Yes Madam in 1985, starring alongside fellow action movie legend Michelle Yeoh.
Discovered by director, producer, and action choreographer Corey Yuen, Rothrock appeared in numerous Hong Kong action films throughout the 1980’s. She got to work alongside (and sometimes fight against) legends like Sammo Hung (Millionaire’s Express), Yuen Biao (Righting Wrongs), and Andy Lau (The Magic Crystal). In 1989, Rothrock became the first western actor in history to headline a Hong Kong action film in Righting Wrongs II: The Blonde Fury, also known as Female Reporter.
While a major action star in Asia, Rothrock never became a household name in the United States. She continued to star in action movies throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s, with many of those films going straight-to-video. While the average American moviegoer may not recognize her name or be aware of her accomplishments, anyone who ever played Mortal Kombat might recognize her influence. Sonya Blade, a blonde American solider who is a playable character starting with the original arcade game, was reportedly inspired by Rothrock.
Today it’s not uncommon to see an American action movie with a female character in either a supporting or main role. This year alone we’ve seen Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, Michelle Rodriguez in Furious 8, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and later this year Daisy Ridley returns in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
Of course, as in many other areas of the film industry, we could always see more women in action movies. But as we move forward and more women headline blockbusters and new cult classics, it’s best not to forget pioneers like Rothrock.