Even in a year that has seen V.I. Warshawski, Thelma and Louise, and Linda Hamilton wreaking deadly vengeance, the latest fatal femme to hit U.S. movies is a bit startling. Until a few weeks ago, Cynthia Rothrock was an American-born star of a dozen Chinese martial-arts flicks who was virtually unknown in her homeland. Now she's following Arnold Schwarzenegger's battle plan, striving to capitalize on the home video market to become the first major female action-movie hero.
Rothrock's new direct-to-video release China O'Brien, in which she plays a former policewoman well versed in tae kwon do, has sold some 20,000 cassettes to video stores in its first month of release, impressive for a video with an unknown star, and a sequel has already been shot for release later this year. Rothrock, 35, also stars in two other upcoming action epics, Fast Getaway, with Corey Haim, in video stores in September, and Rage and Honor, to be shot in the fall. And Defend Yourself, a how-to tape geared to women, is already in stores. All of which seems both suitable and logical to Rothrock. ''I think U.S. audiences are ready to accept a woman in the role of action hero,'' she says. ''That doesn't mean you've got to be macho.'' In fact, she sometimes shows up at martial-arts tournaments clad in a spectacular ''spangled, off-the-shoulder number,'' all ready to kick butt. ''It's such a beautiful sport, kind of a deadly ballet,'' she says. ''I try to make it as aesthetically interesting as possible.''
So how did a nice 5-foot-3-inch woman from Scranton, Pa., learn to make men twice her size cry ''aunt''? At 13, Rothrock, bored with baseball and dance classes, added karate to her activities. Despite protestations from her mom and dad, she got good enough to notch five black belts by 25. In 1985 she retired undefeated as Karate Illustrated magazine's female world champion, a title she had held for five consecutive years.
While teaching karate in California, Rothrock decided to parlay her punch into profit and auditioned for some Hong Kong-based producers who were in the U.S. looking for ''the next Bruce Lee.'' Although her entire acting career had consisted of one commercial, she was the only hopeful amid several hundred men to win a contract. But Chinese moviemaking literally hit her hard. ''Action films are part of their culture, and they like to see you get hit,'' she says. ''On my first film I got kicked in the jaw so hard blood was coming out of my ear. I thought I was going to die!'' Toughing it out, Rothrock became well-known in Asia. Her earnings enabled her to buy a Santa Monica ranch house, where she lives with her cocker spaniel, Katon, and her miniature Doberman pinscher, Killer. In 1988 she decided to try making it Hollywood's way.
She has mixed feelings about the results. ''I'm getting a lot of scripts with characters like Rambette and Robochick,'' she says, ''and those are not the kinds of films I want to make.'' Indeed, she cites Glenn Close as an inspiration: ''She took some hard knocks in those Fatal Attraction fight scenes. You wouldn't believe how many stars just wouldn't do that.'' Currently, she's in Indonesia to shoot another Chinese film, Lady Dragon, but she'll resume her assault on Hollywood soon. ''After all,'' she says, ''when you sell more in foreign countries than Meryl Streep, that's got to account for something.''