Instead of going into sociological analysis mode like many film historians, I will provide a list of the movies which you can see for yourself. However, I will go into detail about the poster which I used as the cover image. It was taken from a film called Drive. It was made in 1995 and released on American video in 1997. Like a Hong Kong cinema fan once said: It was robbed of a mainstream U.S. theatrical release. It was surprisingly huge in Japan, where it was released as Demolition King. Ultraviolet would have been a slightly bigger hit if it was released in Japan as Demolition Queen. Back to Drive, it broke box office records in Russia. It also did top business in Holland.
Had it been released in the way that it should have been, The Matrix would not have gained the impact that it had (since part of that movie’s appeal was that it supposedly had better martial arts fights than any American movie). Even Brett Ratner told the director (Steve Wang) that Rush Hour would not have been as big of a success had Drive been given a stateside cinema release that was non-niche. Brittany Murphy was a better foil to the male duo than Elizabeth Peña was. As for other popular buddy movies of the same ilk – The Dynamite Brothers, Way of the Black Dragon, Kung Fu Executioner, Sun Dragon, The Tattoo Connection and Cradle 2 the Grave.
Interestingly, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is one of the few martial arts movies (if there are any more) to feature a Chinese woman collaborating with a black woman. I recommend a 2009 book titled Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen: The Orientalist Buddy Film. Jackie Chan’s African-American following is such that Rumble in the Bronx was changed (unrealistically) in terms of the race dynamic. Chan wanted to change the street gang’s ethnicity from black (what the producers wanted) to mixed (one film critic joked that it was like Star Trek). It remains to be seen if he chose to star in Rumble in the Bronx instead of Sammo Hung’s Don’t Give a Damn because of the anti-black racism, which harks back to a scene in a 1992 H.K. movie titled Invincible (a military-themed thriller featuring Billy Blanks).
Sammo claimed that it was the Taiwanese investors who insisted on the racist humour. It’s a possibility that the inclusion was an attempt to compensate for Chan’s absence. Despite Jet Li being a national institution in Taiwan (where he’s known as the Kung Fu emperor), Cradle 2 the Grave (co-leading a rapper) grossed not much more than the equivalent of H.K.$ 4 million (ouch). Rush Hour having a bigoted black star explains why the H.K. box office result was 13 million (Chan’s movies usually gross more than H.K.$ 30 million). The threequel grossed H.K.$ 8 million. Before Rush Hour, Jackie was to be with Wesley Snipes in a movie titled Confucius Brown. It was going to be an interracial buddy comedy. It never get off the ground, so Wesley joked that it was reincarnated as Rush Hour.
As to why that Confucius Brown never happened, it could be because of a negative Cantonese slang term called African Buddhist monk. The Chinese pronunciation of black guru which sounds like detestable. After Jackie rejected the chance to be in it, Wesley approached Michelle Yeoh. The only Afro-Asian martial arts movie with a unisexual couple is Romeo Must Die. In 1997, Tsui Hark wanted to make a Las Vegas action comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Chow. Most (if not all) black-driven movies don’t do all that well in H.K. Wesley’s Blade grossed H.K.$ 3 million. Blade 2 (which Donnie Yen coordinated and appeared in) grossed less than 1 million. Blade: Trinity did slightly better but still short of a million. Bad Boys 2 grossed H.K.$ 1 million. Then there’s the matter of racism towards black people in H.K. movies.
The ensuing H.K. films depict racism towards blacks – Way of the Black Dragon, The Tattoo Connection, Righting Wrongs, Ebola Syndrome, Sixty Million Dollar Man, License to Steal, Chicken a La Queen, Mack the Knife, Love Generation Hong Kong, Royal Tramp, Casino Tycoon II and Dummy Mommy Without a Baby. If this list is the dirty dozen then a baker’s dozen would have to include The Good, the Bad and the Beauty. It’s only in the world of H.K. cinema that black men are perceived as being more likely to rape than white ones. It’s a wonder that some black martial arts actors had careers over there. Wesley Snipes would have experienced a resurgence had he made his comeback in H.K. movies. In a way, it would have made more sense for Donnie to fight him instead of Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3.
Given the popularity of Blaxploitation and Kung Fu culture in the seventies, if Bruce Lee had lived then we may have seen him teamed up with Richard Pryor. To make it as bankable as possible, it would have needed to be set in the white gambling world where the story goes from working-class hoodlums to high-class hustlers. A good title for it would have been Black Jack, Solid Heir. The second part of the title being a reference to Bruce being a combative heir to a fortune that can only be won through a game of solitaire. Tsui’s idea to unite Whoopi with Stephen is more inspired than the original plan to have Stephen play Kato in Seth Rogen’s remake of The Green Hornet, although I still feel sorry for Stephen given how much he has been a fan of Bruce.
Back to Whoopi in a way that ties in with H.K. racism, Anita Mui and Anita Yuen dressed up as her in Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man? One such person who paid attention to the development of the trend that became a sub-genre is an American producer who used to work in H.K. His name is Andre Morgan. He worked as a translator on The Way of the Dragon before helping out with the production serving on Enter the Dragon.
The company who produced both Bruce Lee movies was Golden Harvest. Andre worked on the ’80s U.S. movies which Jackie was involved in. Andre went to Jack Clements (a U.S. producer who worked on Lethal Weapon 4) and gave a pitch that had five sentences: We want a cop from China to come to America to help solve a stolen car ring. He’s only a liaison officer. He’s not allowed to carry a firearm and doesn’t have an arrest warrant. He can only ride along because he’s a fish out of water. The wrinkle is our fish is the best martial artist on the police force in China.
Jackie was the first choice but he declined the opportunity to be relegated to TV like how many H.K. martial arts stars were reduced to acting on a H.K. network called TVB. Yuen Biao would have been a good choice as he was residing in Canada. Jack received a jack in the box when Andre suggested that Sammo would be a legible candidate: “Sammo is the kind of character who is human and accessible. The racial barriers, if not gone, are a lot more transparent. The opportunity is there and it’s incumbent upon creative people to find the solution to the problem. The obvious barriers are gone, only the creative barriers remain. If you find the right character that America wants to spend time with on a weekly basis, being a Chinaman won’t preclude him from becoming a star of the series.”
In 1999, the star of said series had this to say about how he got invited in late 1997: “My friend, Andre (who is my manager now), called and wanted to have coffee with me. We went to the 4 Seasons Hotel. He asked me what am I doing now. I told him that I do nothing except fooling around like playing golf. He asked me about my career aspirations, so I told him that I want to make it as a director in America. He asked me if I was still interested in acting, to which I told him about my retirement. I was only up for doing small parts. He told me that I should start acting again because so many people want to see me do it. I told him that I would think about it.”
A few months later (April): “I told him that I will do it if he becomes my manager. He asked me if I was sure. I validated my assurance. He told me that they had an idea for a TV series titled Martial Law. Stanley Tong called me to say – 12 billion Chinese and he’s the best that hails from there. He’s the main character that brings everyone together. He is very serious and humorous. I relayed to him that he’s a lot like me. I liked it. I didn’t think that the show would get picked up. I never thought about it because, like what Jackie says, American projects need time to talk excessively if not redundantly. We negotiated, we saw the TV bosses, then we were shooting a month later. That’s real fast. I’ve never seen a project go fast like that!”
Sammo had to attend two meetings in order for the deal to go through: “They were worried about my English and I concurred. When I first met Carlton Cuse, the spearhead of the show, I went with my wife – Mina (who you know as Joyce Godenzi). She talked and I didn’t say anything. Afterwards, Carlton called Andre to voice a concern that I don’t speak any English. 2 days later, Andre took me to CBS so as to converse with the bosses because they were still concerned about my English. He turned to my wife to say – Right now, we’re going up there. You’re going shopping. We walked in the middle of the office. Everyone was there – the CBS bosses, Stanley Tong, Andre and Carlton. I say – Hi! How are you? I would look at Andre and Stanley while I talked to them about the story. No one spoke. It was only me for 25 minutes. Then they said – OK. Very good. Nice to meet you, Sammo! Andre then said – Who said he doesn’t speak English?”
Although CBS were previously slow to pick up the show, Andre wasn’t slow to pick up on one particular irony: “Sammo is starring in an American show that, 25 years ago, Bruce Lee couldn’t have starred in. However, 25 years ago, Bruce paved the way for a relatively obscure Chinese actor to star in a network series. There’s an ironically circular quality to it. Even more ironic is that Bruce was more than a star. Unlike Steve McQueen, he was an actual hero for many generations of Chinese and has influenced the world.”
It’s a shame that Bruce never lived to see it. He would have been more amused than annoyed the irony. There are always two sides to an origin story, so here I present the perspective of the American executives – Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Television, claimed that since the network’s loss of football a few years prior, its audience had become about 60% female, which he considers a liability: “The proportion was way out of whack.”
By casting off its image as the network for an older, more sedate and earnest crowd (Martial Law was set-up to replace Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), CBS hoped to attract the affluent male channel-flippers which advertisers coveted. Indeed, Dr. Quinn had scored a mediocre 7.7 overall rating for the past season, but a 1.7 for men aged 18 to 34. Each rating point represents 994,000 homes. The seed for the series was planted in March when Terry Botwick (a senior vice president at CBS) sat down next to Ernie Del (a lawyer of his) at a Los Angeles dinner party. Terry told Ernie that for some time he had been thinking of introducing a martial arts drama. Ernie replied: “You won’t believe this, but I may have had a drink with your guys last night. But I guess it’s too late for the coming season.”
Terry said he was intrigued. Ernie explained that he had spoken with Andre in the previous evening with Andre. Terry said it might not be too late. The next day, Ernie met with Leslie, Terry and other executives to discuss the idea. As it happens, one of Ernie’s partners at his firm (i.e. Del, Shaw, Blye and Moonves) is Leslie’s younger brother. In addition, Terry and Leslie are best friends. Leslie jumped at the proposal, even though it meant the show would leapfrog at least one series that had been in development – Texarkana (a small-town cop drama). CBS was eager to appeal to the same sort of audience that tuned in loyally to another Saturday evening action show – Walker, Texas Ranger (which also starred a martial artist who was in a Bruce Lee movie).
CBS executives decided to abandon their normal development process and broadcast the show shortly after agreeing to spend several billion dollars to regain the rights to broadcast National Football League games, also part of the effort to woo this audience. Martial Law was designed to change the viewership game for CBS in 1998. Sandy Grushow (a man who works for 20th Century Fox Television) imparted: “There was a development process, if you can call writing a script in less than a week such a thing.”
One of the first steps was to recruit a writer-producer who could not only develop a script but begin casting and other preparations. Leslie asked Carlton Cuse if he was available to be the showrunner. He created Nash Bridges – a CBS drama that starred Don Johnson. Ernie is Carlton’s lawyer, too. The phone rang. Carlton had his children’s passports on the desk in front of him for a long-planned vacation: “I was mentally halfway to Costa Rica at that point. He asked whether I was interested in getting involved in a martial arts show for CBS . I asked if this was for next year, and he said no, it had to be ready in May.”
By the third week of March, the deal had been struck and the contracts were signed. Carlton started writing on his 39th birthday – March 22: “I locked myself in a room for five days. I told them there’s no time for a full pilot. I had already done the counting of the days and realized we had just nine shooting days. Normally you’d have 15 at least. All I knew really was that it would be a fish out of water story about a Chinese cop in L A.”
In the last week of March, the producers reached Sammo on a golf course in China so as to discuss the idea. Once he gave the thumbs up, they went about casting in April. There was the problem of casting the other lead detectives – a man and a woman. By this point, the talent pool was sucked dry according to Carlton: “Every drama pilot had been cast. It was a very difficult process, and Les is very particular about casting.”
Most of the actors selected had some connection to CBS. Tammy Lauren (a former child actress who had appeared on Walker, Texas Ranger) was chosen to play Dana. For the male lead, the producers borrowed Dale Midkiff, a journeyman actor, from The Magnificent Seven (a CBS show whose fate was uncertain). He shot the first Martial Law pilot, but when his show got a slot on CBS’s schedule, he was replaced by Louis Mandylor – an Australian who had been a kickboxer before shifting to acting. His CBS connection was an occasional part on Nash Bridges as a small time hood named Ray Goetz.
Shooting began on April 22. Problems cropped up immediately. Martial arts scenes can take a long time to choreograph and set up as they require skilled stunt coordinators and doubles. Sammo’s usual stunt coordinator (i.e. Hung Yan-Yan) was unable to obtain his visa in time, so was stuck in Hong Kong. Sammo’s double, a martial arts instructor (from San Jose), injured himself in training. This meant that Sammo had to do everything himself. Carlton thought: “Oh God, if Sammo goes down…we’re dead.”
Pilots usually have to be ready after 6 weeks. The filming took just days instead of weeks. The post-production work had to be compressed into 8 days; normally it takes about 22 days. Unable to complete a one hour pilot for 2 million dollars, the decision was made to do a 30 minute one instead. A so-called presentation episode (a 28 minute sample) was delivered on May 10. By May 20, CBS announced that Martial Law would be on its schedule. In August, the second pilot had already been filmed.
On the 17th, someone reported: “I’ve seen a 29 minute presentation video. Not fair to judge by that since it’s not complete. The story is condensed while the music is borrowed from Mortal Kombat, Rumble in the Bronx and especially First Strike among others; but this looks like it could be fun or could easily go the other way. It’s hard to tell at this point, but part of the story was just too overly familiar, and the acting overall is certainly not the best I’ve seen. The show co-stars Dale Midkiff (from Time Trax and Pet Cemetery).”
On that same day, someone had typed (in a Usenet newsgroup): “They showed some commercials of Martial Law during the football game last weekend. I remember one of them – Sammo was walking down the street holding a bag of groceries. You can see behind him a robber running away from cops. Sammo was trying to take out his french bread and accidently nails the robber with it. Pretty funny.”
The pilot’s director was Stanley Tong, who directed a movie which Andre worked on as an executive producer – Mr. Magoo. Despite the box office failure in 1997, he was still seen as a legit guy to work with on an action project because of how profitable that Rumble in the Bronx (1994) turned out to be in 1996. Also, it’s common for TV to be a dumping ground for directors who failed to make it big on theatrical screens. It’s better than an actor who goes from movie theaters to standard theaters. Instead of doing the fight choreography, Richard Hung (a.k.a. Yuen Tak) directed the action scenes in the other odd-numbered episodes whereas the even-numbered ones were directed by Ailen Sit.
Assisting the duo was Andy Cheng (doubling for Sammo as seen above). Speaking of the devil, he met Ailen at TVB, Richard while working on High Risk, and Sammo when he worked on Pantyhose Hero. When he met up with the first two guys on Martial Law, they decided that Tammy’s character would do Taekwondo so that her high kicks contrasted with the Thai kickboxing style of Louis. Andy noticed that the only differences between the American and H.K. stunt guys was that of personal opinions instead of work conflicts: “They say Van Damme has a good kick whereas I say it’s very bad. I say Jackie Chan is best, some say he is just a circus.”
Richard was the one who was the most prepared to deal with the pressures of working on TV because of his experience in H.K. cinema: “The busiest that I have ever been is doing 4 movies at the same time. This was in 1991. The movies were The Top Bet, Alien Wife, Fist of Fury 1991 along with Touch and Go. You can only film two different movies in one day. I’d do one shift on one film, go home to wash up and go do another shift on a different movie then this goes on for maybe 3 to 4 days. In America, you can make a movie, earn pay then not work for 6 months if you want to; but your money is used up by the time that you have finished a movie in Hong Kong. Living in this world, there is no right or wrong – there are only reasons.”
For someone who was accustomed to the fast-paced world of H.K. film-making, even he had a difficult time adjusting his creative heights for lowly achievements: “We only have 4 days of shooting 3 or 4 fight scenes. Without time and money, there is no way that they can have fights or action scenes on this show that looks even close to the Hong Kong experience. Another problem is the script. Like today, we still have new changes coming in, so it makes our design difficult and we can’t have all the props we need. In Hong Kong, we see the location and if we decide to make a drastic change, we already have a lot of breakaway stuff where we decide to do something we didn’t plan. On Martial Law, sometimes we end up filming the dialogue and drama.”
As for having the last word in filming and editing the fights: “About 85 to 90%, because we get a new director each week and they don’t understand martial arts action. To us, there is a difference between martial arts direction and directing. We design action and decide how to film it, so we don’t need to explain that to them but the difficulty is that there is not enough communication between us, hence why directing styles don’t match.”
A year later, the new showrunner had this to say: “While the second unit director will get a first cut of the action footage, the main unit director is free to recut the footage for his director’s cut of the episode. Then, of course, the executive producers can recut everything if they wish.”
Unlike Chow Yun-Fat and Jackie, Sammo wasn’t going to be playing a character named John Lee. Like Bruce, Sammo’s character spout aphorisms. Say what you will about him playing a character named Sammo Law, it’s better than the Marshall Law character in the Tekken video games. On the subject of contrived names, Kelly Hu’s character (Grace Chen Pei-Pei) was one letter away from being identical to an actress named Cheng Pei-Pei. The irony about her casting is that her status as a martial artist was a brown belt whereas the Caucasian female who was a black belt owner was Tammy Lauren. Both ladies are students of Karate. In terms of style specifics, Kelly was studying Kanzen Budo Kai whereas Tammy studied Shotokan.
There was tension between the two when Stanley wanted to repeat a shot where Tammy has to kick Kelly’s wrist, which got swollen. Kelly whined but Stanley told her to man up. Craig Reid interviewed the two of them separately months in advance for the May 1999 issue of Femme Fatales. I would just like to mention in passing that Craig used to be a stuntman and dubber in Taiwan from the late seventies to the early eighties. Kelly disclosed that past relationships were marred by sparring bruises which people immediately associated with abuse. Tammy imparted that women staying with abusive men feel inferior. In fairness, the context wasn’t related but it didn’t help that (earlier on) she drew a comparison about who had what type of belt.
To literally add insult to injury, she made it clear that you have to deal with getting bruised on this type of series. Further tension was mounted by the fact that Kelly wore smaller heels, which made it difficult for Tammy. Stanley evaluates her skill set: “Tammy has a black belt. I push her hard when she needs a break. I say – drink some water. It’s tough because this is an ambitious show. On average, I’m doing 58 set-ups a day. On my weekends off, I am with my stunt crew. We walk through the fights so we know what to do when we walk through a location. My group is used to that work ethic.”
Contrary to cynically popular belief, she enjoyed her time during her run on the show: “It’s very rewarding. The Hong Kong crew – Richard, Ailen and Andy – are adorable, really know their stuff and they make you do things you think you can’t do. The fights are definitely a different style of action. In the Hong Kong mode, you have to do all the stunts yourself. Even the American-trained stuntmen have a difficult time doing the fights. For the dangerous stuff, I do have a double. I’ve done martial arts since I was ten and have done fighting with Chuck Norris on his show – Walker, Texas Ranger. Chuck is a different character from Sammo, so he fights differently. The fights on Martial Law are much more precise.”
Also contrary to popular cynicism, she enjoyed her time with Sammo (unlike the character that she played): “I already know who he is. My favourite film of his is Painted Faces, which shows us the true story of when he was a kid training with Jackie Chan in the opera school. Sammo is such a pleasure to work with. His English is getting better. My husband and him get along really well.”
Kelly’s character was originally supposed to be appear in the first five episodes as an antagonist, but Grace becomes a part of the L.A.P.D. by episode two’s end. By then, Sammo learned that Hollywood can only do 30 shots per day whereas the H.K. daily quota is 80. On the subject of dashed dreams, he never got the chance to film a Painted Faces sequel that took place in America. He also never got to direct any episodes of Martial Law. His only progress was learning how to speak English. He would engage in weekday lessons consisting of 5 hours. He wanted to increase it to 7 hours but there’s only so many words that he can chew.
Considering that 8 is a lucky number for the Chinese, it’s fitting that Bruce’s daughter made a guest starring appearance in the eighth episode (titled Take Out). It was the highest-rated episode. 14 million viewers tuned in. The average rating was 12 million tuning in. Originally, the background of her character was that her father and brother died. Shannon Lee says that she didn’t mind but the producers clearly did. Stanley was taken aback by the success to the point of planning an action comedy for Sammo to star in. Sadly, it never happened but it definitely would have been better than any of the action comedies which Kevin James has been in. Tam didn’t leave willingly whereas her replacement did. Tong disclosed that her leave was politically motivated.
The ninth episode was the beginning of a downward spiral when a black comedian was hired as a sidekick. Part of the reasoning behind this was that Eddie Murphy had rejected the chance to play Jackie’s sidekick in Rush Hour, so perhaps Eddie’s sidekick in Coming to America would make for a more willing sidekick. For softcore fans of martial arts movies, it was a blatant attempt to cash in on the success of Jackie’s latest hit. For hardcore fans, it was another example of something that has a long-time tradition. On further reflection, the first 8 episodes were a smokescreen to hide the fact that Martial Law was given the greenlight because CBS already knew that Jackie was starring in Rush Hour. The series premièred in the same month that the movie came out in 1998.
The former came out on Saturday, September 26 whereas the latter came out on Friday, September 18. It’s important to mention the days as well as the dates so that you get a better sense of the timing. CBS knew that the media frenzy for Rush Hour would be in full-swing after a week. The same strategy happened when Charmed was given the go-ahead so as to synchronize with the box office success of Practical Magic (starring Sandra Bullock and co-starring Nicole Kidman). The former began airing on Wednesday, October 7 whereas the latter was coming out on Friday, October 16. The plan didn’t go without a hitch. When the third-billed actress was replaced, they should have reshot the entire pilot so that the release would be more timely. That way, Charmed would’ve been effectively marketed as a superior take on sisterly witches.
In 1999, success reached a new level on February 1. At the first annual TV Guide Awards on the Fox Studio lot, Martial Law won as Favorite New Series. The awards were determined by readers of TV Guide magazine who voted for their favorite television shows and stars. The ceremony was telecast live on the FOX TV network. In March of 1998, success seemed like it would be nascent. One March later, we have this success story.
In mid-August of 1998, things were looking up. In mid-August of 1999, things were on their way deep down when Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin gave press releases. They were added to the roster in April after the departure of Carlton (who didn’t want to abandon his team on Nash Bridges). The punter pair wrote a pilot for CBS called Hong Kong that didn’t fly, but the network brass liked the script and they were brought aboard Martial Law. Goldberg said: “We were fans of Martial Law but felt the show hadn’t reached its potential. The acting was there, but they were doing T.J. Hooker stories with Sammo in the Shatner part. We want a more 90s ambiance, to be honest.”
Rabkin concurred: “It was T.J. Hooker with spin kicks. It was a conventional cop show with conventional cop stories. Last year, we were frustrated with Martial Law and talked about how we wished we were doing it. We felt the stories could be as much fun as the martial arts were. We wanted to remake the show as a throwback in the best sense of the word. Our inspirations will be Wild Wild West, It Takes a Thief, The Thief, Maverick and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In a way, we’re starting from scratch. We’re going back to the notion that Sammo is a fish out of water. He got way too comfortable and fit in way too well with America and the L.A.P.D. We won’t pretend he’s a perfect speaker of the English language. We’ll have fun with the fact he’s out of place.”
Goldberg’s response was equally concurring: “Last year, Arsenio played a publicist who became a detective. This immediately emasculated the character from the start. He spent the whole season complimenting Sammo and then getting the gun kicked out of his hand. He wasn’t Sammo’s equal. Not everybody and his dog in LA. will be a martial artist. It’s silly to have someone doing it next to Sammo when they’re not as good as him. Sammo won’t win every fight he’s in. He’s not Superman.”
Rabkin complained: “There is no drama on the network that is just plain fun.”
Like a couple finishing each other’s sentences, Goldberg replied: “Television used to be entertainment – helping people forget about the real world for a while. Grace will be getting a makeover as well – burning her business suits in favour of body-hugging leather. She will be an Emma Peel for the millennium. We want women to dress like Kelly Hu, and men to want to sleep with her. If you looked at Men’s Journal, there were these photo spreads of her in tiny little outfits and these sexy poses. You’d turned to Martial Law and she’s dressed like she’s going to start selling you cheap insurance policy. This is not fun, so this year – she’s going to be an undercover operator but doing so wearing incredibly daring costumes. She’s going to look different in every episode. If we can get her poster on the closet door of every 14-year-old boy in America, we’ll be happy.”
Rabkin has a mutual mentality: “Kelly was doing these amazing spreads in Maxim and other magazines, proving herself to be one of the sexiest women on the planet, and yet they’d turn on our show and see her dressed like an insurance salesman. We moved out of the precinct and into a super high-tech headquarters that looks like something out of Star Trek.”
Goldberg is mutually ignorant: “We’ve basically pretended that the first season never existed. Gretchen is the new leader but she is the surrogate audience member. She expresses their point of view. She’ll say something like – Sammo, you could have knocked on the door instead of kicking it in. She’s a cross between Stephanie Zimbalist of Remington Steele and Shelley Long of Cheers.”
It shows bad form for Goldberg to have replied two months later: “I forgot to comment on this. His character became redundant once Arsenio was brought on the show. Both actors were being short-changed – they each were playing half a character. We had to make a choice –we chose Arsenio. Besides, we didn’t see a future for a character (Louis) who spent most of the episodes saying “Aw shucks, Sammo, you’re amazing. Can you teach me that?” We wanted more conflict, more contrast between the two central characters. As far as the girlfriend goes, none of us felt that storyline was going anywhere and made Sammo look like an adolescent. We brought the character of Amy Dylan in to change the dynamic a bit – to give us some conflict, and more contrast with the other characters. We also did it to make the show slightly less masculine and to give Grace a sort-of partner who was very different from her.”
Goldberg admitted that cracks started to show because of exclusion: “We did make Amy too rigid and antagonistic at first with the intention of having her soften up as she got to know our people and got past her own insecurities. The character arc was too subtle and didn’t come across the way we’d hoped. The personal stuff that seemed to come out of nowhere in the ninja episode was entirely our fault – the show was running long, so we had to cut some stuff in editing and, as a result, her “opening up” to Sammo seemed arbitrary and irrelevant. If I had My Man Sammo to do over again, I would probably change her attitude towards Sammo and the assignment i.e. reveal more of her insecurity to him earlier on, and gratefulness for him being there, rather than show her hiding her fears behind arrogance.”
Of course, no egotist is entirely humble: “I thought she was fabulous in Blue Flu and how any news-groupie can still find her unappealing or unpleasant after that (in which she explained her behavior in the previous episodes) is beyond me. What we don’t want her to ever be is an “eager to please rookie” – we aren’t doing The Next Karate Kid here nor do we want every character on the show looking to Sammo for approval and wisdom. She is typical of lots of major corporations these days (particularly network television) where young people are vaulted to positions of power far too early. She admits that herself in Blue Flu and explains most of the time she’s acting out of fear that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She didn’t get the job out of experience but from political skills. Now that she has it, she’s terrified that she’ll screw up. Grace tells her that she’s earned their respect and can be honest with them. From that episode on, the relationship between Grace and Amy is noticeably different. They go from being adversaries to best friends.”
It may seem like Goldberg had got everything which he wanted but not exactly: “We tried to persuade CBS to air it letterboxed, but they aren’t ready for that. Last season was shot on super 16mm and looked it. Thankfully, the film stock that we have now is 35mm.”
Rabkin has a tendency to expand on Goldberg’s caricatural superficiality like in November: “There are basically two ways to shoot for HD and standard TV – frame for HD and do a pan/scan, or frame for standard TV and then crop out a 16:9 image. Paramount shows have been doing it the latter way, and apparently there have been lots of problems with the HD version. We made the decision to go for the widescreen version. At times, we think we’re nuts for doing so – there are probably about six people in the country who actually get an HD signal right now. But this is the TV of the future, and we felt that we had to commit to it. I’m only sorry that CBS won’t let us broadcast our normal signal letterboxed.”
Season 2 premièred in September but it’s a sign of trepidation to come that Goldberg felt compelled to contribute to an Asian movies message board in July. People weren’t impressed with his gimmick of hiring directors based on what popular TV shows which they worked on. Someone made a good point that Goldberg should hire Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark (who Jean-Claude Van Damme brought over from Hong Kong).
He countered: “I’m not sure that the majority of TV viewers have the slightest idea who they are or even pay any attention to episodic TV director credits. That said, we have approached many big H.K. directors and most are busy with movie commitments. Besides, if we want a top H.K. director, we really don’t have to go further than our own office. We have Stanley and Sammo right here! We are not going to overload the show with H.K. action stars as guests. We think that it will detract from Sammo and the “fish out of water” element of the show. If there are Chinese folks all around, he’s not really out of his element, is he? That said, we do have plans to bring some H.K. stars on as guests…but it’s too early for me to talk about that now. Sammo is always welcome to direct, but so far, he prefers to act (though he does offer many suggestions and takes an active role in choreographing the second unit work).”
The day after the première, Goldberg tried to ring enthusiasm out of the Asian movie community but only one person responded by patronizingly point out that the fights in The Phantom Menace weren’t that impressive. Goldberg’s post began on a subtle dig at Carlton: “The stories they were telling last year were the kind of stories you could find on Nash Bridges. We wanted stories that you could only find on Martial Law. They were making Sammo out to be a Detective Sipowicz from N.Y.P.D. Blue. No one tunes in to Martial Law to see Sammo interrogate a perp. Our action sequences are better than any light-saber fight in The Phantom Menace.”
In January of 2000, the latest advertisement had Kelly Hu’s picture being bigger than Sammo’s. The tagline was: “Watch as Grace and Sammo…”
In March, Goldberg broke the bad news about Sammo’s son: “Timmy Hung will not be appearing on the season finale of Martial Law due to INS bureaucracy. For reasons we do not understand, they would not grant him a visa to perform on our show. They stalled until the last possible moment. All of us on Martial Law were disappointed and hope he will be able to appear next season. However, I’m pleased to say that the young actor we hired at the last minute to step in for Timmy did a terrific job and that Sammo enjoyed working with him.”
Sammo’s hand gestures may as well symbolize that the series put the x in axed. One of the reasons why Martial Law got cancelled was because Arsenio Hall made his decision in 2000 (circa February) that he wasn’t coming back for a third season. In 2002, Sammo hoped to produce and star in a U.S. TV series about a Feng Shui master. He noticed how popular that it was becoming in America, but he admitted that he was still learning about Feng Shui. He intended for a series to begin in the summer of 2003 but it never happened. On a fitting final note which ties in with the beginning of this article, Sammo was referenced in Drive.