As far back as 1985, Sylvester Stallone was going to star in The Executioner as confirmed by an issue of The Film Journal which also advertised two earlier incarnations of projects that were later filmed with other people i.e. can you imagine Bright Lights, Big City with Tom Cruise or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as directed by Ivan Reitman? In the December 26, 1985 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald, an interview from Rolling Stone had been lifted where an interviewer had reminded Stallone that The Executioner was set to be filmed after Cobra and Over the Top respectively. By 1987, Rambo III had replaced The Executioner because Over the Top had flopped. In theory, this shouldn’t have mattered but the way that it works in Hollywood is that you’re as good as your last film.
As you can attest by my cover (which is a reworking of a flyer printed out by the Carolco company), advertising The Executioner relied heavily on using photos of Sly during his Cobra era (which was filmed from October 23 of 1985 to January 17 in 1986). There’s even an issue of Starlog (#131) where they used a still of Stallone from the shooting gallery scene. The Cobra era predates the involvement of the RoboCop writers (Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) working for Sly’s team on The Executioner. The writing duo were brought on board after the previous writer had experienced a box office flop with her Whoopi Goldberg action comedy – Fatal Beauty (which was released in the same year as RoboCop but afterwards).
Hilary Henkin didn’t write the story for Fatal Beauty, but she is one of two writers credited with “screenplay” credits (not including storyteller Bill Svanoe). She eventually redeemed herself with the 1989 release of a Patrick Swayze movie called Road House (which she co-wrote). Coincidentally, Swayze dropped out of co-starring opposite Sly Stallone in Tango & Cash (which began filming a month after the release of Road House). The producer of Road House was going to produce The Executioner. Reading between the lines, it would appear that Joel Silver offered Road House as a consolation prize to Hilary. In a 1994 issue of Columbia Daily Spectator (February 10, 1994), Hilary admitted that she never went to college. Not only did Mike Miner attend university, but Ed Neumeier had attended two.
It’s just as well that the flyer for The Executioner had the following disclaimer: Credit not contractual. In three October 1988 newpapers including Lakeland Ledger, it was reported that director William Friedkin and Stallone were no longer going to do The Gambler. Not because they were doing The Executioner instead, but because The Gambler was a replacement project. Friedkin blamed the RoboCop duo: “They never delivered the screenplay – and so Sly started doing a rewrite of The Gambler that had already gone through drafts by three other writers. And now it’s obvious Sly just won’t have the story together before the holidays. He and I are looking for another project to do together – hopefully before the end of the year.”
It seems like Ed and Mike, for all of their uni prowess, couldn’t put their heads together right – whether this was due to hedonism or creative conflict remains to be seen. In the October 12, 1988 issue of The Ledger, Orion Senior V.P. Mike Medavoy claimed that RoboCop 2 would have been filmed in the autumn of that year had it not been for their script not coming together. This lexical ambiguity allows one to tell the truth while sparing dignity. From one interpretation, this could be interpreted as they didn’t write the script in time, but this could also be deciphered as: the elements of the script didn’t come together. Following on from what Medavoy said about the script not coming together, he said that they then set off to work on The Executioner.
Back to Mr. Stallone, The Executioner was based on a series of novels by Don Pendleton like how Cobra was loosely based on Paula Gosling’s Fair Game. Back in 1986, the greenlighting of The Executioner depended on the success of Cobra. The latter was a mixed bag in terms of profit. It earned over 49 million domestically, but it made over 110 million everywhere else. This was still a disappointment considering how the previous year was Stallone’s pinnacle with the releases of Rambo: First Blood Part Two and Rocky IV. As a director, he was coming off high with Rocky IV making more money overall than Rambo except Rambo had a higher domestic intake. This probably explains why the director of Rambo, George P. Cosmatos, was hired to be the credited director of Cobra. I say “credited” because it’s been revealed in recent years that Sly was the true director of Cobra.
Carolco were one of the distributors of Rambo. They would later produce Rambo III (which was made in 1987 before being released in 1988) and they co-produced Lock Up (which was produced as well as distributed in 1989). One of the production companies for the latter was White Eagle – Stallone’s company. It was formed in 1986. In May of that year, he announced at a press conference that he had signed a ten-picture deal with United Artists. On December 11 (a Thursday), he announced that he had sold the foreign theatrical and home video rights to those movies to Carolco. The latter’s co-chairmen, Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar, revealed that White Eagle would receive 140,500 shares of Carolco stock. Carolco proposed to contribute somewhere between $100 million and $125 million toward the production costs of the 10 movies, albeit collectively not individually.
Stallone was given the right to exercise an option to acquire 12% of Carolco’s interest in International Video Entertainment (the Carolco-controlled company that were going to release the White Eagle/United Artists movies on VHS). However, this might have been an example of biting more than one can chew. At the time, it made sense for this offer to exist because Rambo and Rocky IV each made 300.4 million dollars. As was announced in the May press conference, Stallone still agreed to star in five of the films and write, direct or produce the other five. The deal was to take place over the course of 6 years. The first movie was going to be Rambo III. This calls into question as to why The Executioner had yet to go from the drawing board to the storyboard. The source material, War Against the Mafia, wasn’t going to be too expensive to film (as long as Sly’s salary wasn’t going to be an issue).
What happened was that Rambo III was the beginning of the end for the Italian Stallion since not only was it less profitable than Rambo but it barely made three times its budget, which is important to stress since Rambo III was the most expensive movie that had ever been produced up to that point in time (63 million dollars). There was a question raised as to whether Stallone had any mileage outside of the Rocky and Rambo franchises. In 1989, he transferred UA’s duties to Tri-Star but the ensuing film (Lock Up) was such a flop that White Eagle was absorbed by Carolco. By the time that it was October 1990, he had changed his mind about producing. Besides noting that the deal had been amended so that he would appear in four movies, he said: “I’m not enamored of the business behind the camera, the catering, the bonding companies. It kills the aesthetic.”
Rikke Schubart mentioned in her Action Babes book that 1990 was when Sly had broken his contract so that he could set out to do The Executioner with Cynthia Rothrock, hence the stills that I have selected to put into this article (so as to illustrate what she was doing from the time period of 1987 to 1990 if not reflect what the content of The Executioner would have consisted of exactly). In fact, Andy Meisler wrote a 1994 article for the New York Times which claimed that 1990 was when Cynthia was signed by producer Joel Silver. At this point, I should note that she was assigned an American agent by the name of Lou Pitt. This man told her that she was forbidden to do any more Hong Kong movies, which is why she didn’t do any more sequels to Golden Harvest’s China O’Brien i.e. following the completion of the first sequel in 1988.
There is something not quite right about 1990 being the signing date. Mike Leeder remembered 1990 as the year when he moved to Hong Kong, because he met Cynthia and Jeff Falcon while they were making Prince of the Sun (this was Cynthia’s most expensive movie). For the February/March 1990 issue of Combat, Jeff told John Ladalski (another H.K. film actor) that Cynthia only became the star of The Blonde Fury (released in April 1989) because she had signed a deal to do a Sly Stallone movie (the H.K. trailer for The Blonde Fury exploited this with a composite of their faces). This would imply that the movie which was previously known as Lady Reporter was originally a co-starring gig for her. The context of Jeff’s comment was that Westerners weren’t usually given the opportunity to play the main character of a H.K. movie.
Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon, was the exception to the rule when he starred in Ronny Yu’s Legacy of Rage (1986) because he was half-Chinese. Another half-Chinese performer, Joyce Godenzi, would end up starring in License to Steal (1990). What these two movies have in common with The Blonde Fury is that they were all produced by Sammo Hung’s companies. The Blonde Fury was produced by Bo Ho Films, and License to Steal was produced by Bojon whereas Legacy of Rage was produced by D&B (i.e. Dickson Poon and Sammo Hung Kam-Bow). It was only natural that Sammo would get involved with Shannon Lee’s first and final H.K. movie – Enter the Eagles (1998). Back to Jeff, he first acted with Cynthia for The Inspector Wears Skirts (the source of the above stills and the below still). This movie, produced by Jackie Chan, was made in 1987.
According to John Charles in The Hong Kong Filmography (2000), Lady Reporter began filming in 1987 and then halted midway through before resuming several months later. Cynthia claimed that she was an afterthought addition to The Inspector Wears Skirts because Jackie’s company, Golden Way, began filming and realized that it was lacking that special something. If Cynthia could be regarded as such a strong selling point that she could be added to a movie’s cast after the fact then why was Lady Reporter shelved? To understand why is to learn that 1987 was a significant year for Cynthia in that it marked the making of her second English language movie – No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder (it’s not so much a sequel as it was a signifier to people who enjoyed watching the Chinese-style fight scenes of the predecessor). Her first English language movie was 24 Hours to Midnight (1985).
Raging Thunder was made in the spring of 1987 whereas Lady Reporter was made in that year’s fall. Anyway, it took two years for Raging Thunder to be released in the U.S. despite an early 1988 release in Germany. Therefore, there’s no way that Stallone nor Silver would have seen the movie in 1987 or even 1988. There are two theories that I have – it’s either Sly saw the 1986 photo of Jackie Chan alongside Cynthia and asked Jackie who she was…or Sly saw one of her earlier H.K. movies in Chinatown. Remember that Sly is the same guy who stole the denouement of Jackie’s vehicle chase in Police Story (1985) for Tango & Cash. As for Silver, he stole the shotgun-attached-to-some-kind-of-cord gag from Tiger on the Beat (1988) for Exit Wounds (2001).
Regardless, you have to question why they didn’t think of casting her in the role of Lenina Huxley for Demolition Man. Hell, they were okay with casting Lori Petty before dumping her in favour of Sandra Bullock. Heck, they even wanted Jackie to play the villain! In Volume IV, Issue 3 (dated 1996) of Hong Kong Film Connection, Cynthia relayed to Clyde Gentry that The Blonde Fury made Sly a bigger fan of hers than before: “I remember this one wire stunt where I do these three kicks in the air. Sylvester Stallone had the tape, he came in and brought his stunt team with him. How did she do that? they said. They could not figure it out at all. A friend of mine who worked with one of the stunt coordinators called me and asked how I did it. When I said I was wired, she couldn’t believe it. Stallone wanted to do that move in one of his movies.”
I have my doubts as to how good that the fight scenes in The Executioner would have been. Would Sly have been okay with Cynthia one-upping him like how fellow Yes, Madam co-star Michelle Yeoh would later one-up Jackie in Police Story III: Supercop? Besides the possibility that Cynthia would have been saddled with Pat Johnson as the fight choreographer (due to union rules), William Friedkin directing her fight scenes would probably have been the late `80s equivalent to when James Glickenhaus directed Jackie in the mid-80s. In a 1996 book called The Essential Jackie Chan Sourcebook, Glickenhaus said: “They never shoot masters, they shoot very short sections and they do a lot of under-cranking to speed up the movement, which I refuse to do. I told him I wanted to shoot the fights in masters and then, if they didn’t work, go back and cover them.”
Cynthia was no stranger to reshoots. Director Corey Yuen and herself returned to H.K. during the filming of Raging Thunder so as to film the alternate ending to Righting Wrongs (1986) when the movie was going to be released internationally as Above the Law. This meant that Corey’s assistant choreographer, Meng Hoi, took over directing duties for Raging Thunder. Ironically, Corey replaced Meng Hoi as the director for when Lady Reporter became The Blonde Fury (i.e. the above still). Adding to the complexity is that Meng used to be Cynthia’s boyfriend. Back to the issue of women being replaced or misplaced, it’s weird. In the eighties, we have Hilary Henkin who gets replaced like someone being cut from a sports team. In the nineties, we have Lori Petty’s footage being cut out. Somewhere in between, we get Cynthia being ignored despite having cut abs.
One crucial difference between Hollywood and H.K. is that movies are made so quickly in H.K. that the year of the release is usually the same as the year of the production unless we’re talking about a movie that was made in the final season of one year before being released in the first season of the next. The Inspector Wears Skirts was made somewhere between Raging Thunder and Lady Reporter in 1987, yet it was released on June 3 in 1988. Coincidentally and ironically, the June issue of Starlog had a report about The Executioner but with no reference to Cynthia. Stallone was quoted as saying that filming was scheduled to begin on May 15. He wanted to let people know that his character (Mack Bolan) was not going to be like Rambo or Cobra: “We’ll make him a little more sophisticated in his approach to solving crime and hunting out the bad guys.”
Interestingly, this was the same approach that Sly would later employ when he began filming Tango & Cash in June 1989. The filming of Lock Up had previously taken place from February to May of 1989. It’s not been efficiently explained why The Executioner was put on ice. In 2014, Cynthia told Michael Mirasol that she had a second meeting with Friedkin where he slammed a copy of the script onto a table and told her that he wouldn’t do the movie because the script was terrible. She still got paid, but you would think that they could have got Shane Black from Lethal Weapon (another 1987 action film like RoboCop) to rewrite the script. When Die Hard came out in July 1988, there was the option of hiring Steven E. de Souza, but nothing of the sort happened.
After all, Joel Silver was the co-producer of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, so you have to wonder where his mind was at. Maybe he was torn between the two writers, but it would have been easy to pick Steven since not only was Die Hard more successful but Steven had already worked for Silver when he wrote Commando back in 1984. Also, why couldn’t Stallone replace Friedkin with Die Hard director John McTiernan? The July 20, 1988 issue of The Vindicator contained a Lou Cedrone article from The Baltimore Evening Sun which shed more light from Silver’s position. I’ve rearranged the structure so that you don’t get thrown off by him oscillating between talking about the actor and the character: “The Executioner is about 135 books. He’s a pulp adventure hero. Pulp readers know the Executioner. He’s an action figure, and Sly won’t be alone. He’ll have support. It will be fun. It will have a light center.”
It’s strange how Cynthia wasn’t namechecked. As for what Silver had to say about Stallone, you wouldn’t think that The Executioner was going to be a cold-blooded action movie with a dry sense of humour. Silver’s description of Sly and how he fits into the movie sounds like Silver was wanting to do a heart-warming action comedy, something that only happened when he produced Die Hard 2 instead of Hudson Hawk (which also starred Bruce Willis). Anyway, Silver said: “I’m looking forward to doing the film with Stallone. His company owns the property, and I think he’ll be very good in the film. Sly has a great sense of humour. He is warm and funny, and when he does those two things together, he is really effective. He hasn’t done that sort of thing since the first Rocky.”
In the December 1989 issue of Black Belt, Cynthia talked about how her deal with Sly had been misinterpreted by the H.K. press: “The one thing that I’d consider a drawback was that a lot of the press people couldn’t speak English. In order to do interviews, I’d have to go through a translator, and sometimes they got a little mixed up. When I first signed my contract with Sylvester Stallone, the next day it came out that I was in love with Sylvester Stallone. I had said that in the picture there might be some kind of relationship that would develop, but when it was printed, they said I was his new girlfriend.”
The above two stills and below stills are from a movie titled City Cops. It only got released for 6 days in November 1989. Going by Cynthia’s hair length, City Cops was probably filmed in early 1988. It was produced by a company called Movie Impact. Unlike Sammo’s companies and Jackie’s company, they were not a subsidiary of Golden Harvest. Movie Impact was a subsidiary of Win’s Film. The latter company is credited as producing Wong Jing’s Magic Crystal (1986), but the lighting and cinematographer are credited as Movie Impact Cinematographers Team. Regardless, Cynthia co-starred in it. When it was revealed that she was going to do an English language movie for Golden Harvest (i.e. China O’Brien), the release of City Cops was put on hold. The gambit didn’t pay off because China O’Brien would end up being released in 1990.
You can only sit on a film for so long before investors demand to be reimbursed. Also, sitting on a film for so long can result in people stealing your ideas, or people assuming that you have a stinker on your hands. I think that City Cops was robbed of a respectable Western release. I’m not saying that it should have been released in mainstream cinemas, but the English title is so generic that even Chinese Magnum would have been much better since Shing Fui-On’s cap and moustache is meant to be reminiscent of Tom Selleck in the Magnum P.I. series (whose final episode had aired on May 1, 1988). The Chinese title of City Cops was Double Dragon Detectives. The Movie Impact company was owned by Jimmy Heung, who was one of the leaders of the Sun Yee On Triad. This makes me wonder what Cynthia has to say about the Triads.
Christ, I’ve never even heard her address the issue of racism in the H.K. film industry. Sophia Crawford, for instance, got it really bad when she became Cynthia’s replacement as the go-to for casting a white warrior woman in H.K. cinema. Jimmy’s interest in wanting to work with Cynthia is fascinating because she wasn’t a particularly big draw at the local box office, so his desire to reunite with her had a lot to do with her making in-roads in foreign markets. For example, the H.K. box office take of The Inspector Wears Skirts was only H.K. $15,581,156 despite the effort of shoehorning in Cynthia. Back to The Executioner, the stars seemed to align in June 1988 because not only did that month mark the release of The Inspector Wears Skirts but it marked the publication of two American articles that referenced The Executioner.
In a June 5 article for the L.A. Times, the United Artists chairman (Lee Rich) let it be known that he regarded the deal with Sly as a “nothing pact” because Sly was falling behind in delivering a set number of movies by a certain time. Still, the UA chairman was looking forward to The Executioner. The caveat was that filming was to begin “about three months down the line” according to Robin Garb (the president of Sly’s White Eagle). Meanwhile, a new draft was being written. As was the case with the Starlog article, there was no reference to Cynthia. Likewise with a June 23 article that was published by the Chicago Tribune. In this other article, William Friedkin said that the cameras were going to roll in early September. In the meantime, Sly was reportedly on a long worldwide trip publicizing Rambo III.
Reference is made to the fact that Carolco’s status as an independent company meant that there was a loophole which resulted in an amicable arrangement with the soon-to-go-on-strike Writers Guild of America. The strike ran from March 7 to August 7. The Chicago Tribune is noteworthy because Friedkin is a Chicago native. In fact, there was a 1988 press release from the Illinois Information Service that informed the locals that The Executioner was not going to be filmed in Chicago. Instead, filming was to take place in New Jersey. In the February 1989 issue of Esquire, June 1988 is referred to as the starting point of Sly’s involvement with The Executioner. This was a month after the U.S. premiere of Rambo III. The Esquire article went into detail surrounding the history of the project along with the discord between Stallone and Friedkin. The drawback is that there was no mention of Cynthia!
The only thing even close to a reference is a report that the casting director was already interviewing actors by the time that it was August 1988. In that month, Sly had written half of the screenplay. Part of the conflict was that he didn’t want to make an action movie, but the genre was his cash cow. Of course, this didn’t stop him from doing Tango & Cash but that movie would probably have not been made if The Executioner had been made, because they are both buddy action movies. The Esquire article mentioned that the start date for The Executioner had been postponed till November, but we all know what happened by that point. The thing that should have cemented the bond between Stallone and Friedkin became the wedge between them – they had recently gone through divorces.
Ultimately, any collaborative endeavours between the two men had grinded to a halt because they each had different expectations of Stallone the Stallion. There was a third cancelled project that might have worked with both Stallone and Rothrock (albeit had she been considered). The project was going to be an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava. Stallone liked the idea of playing a disillusioned ex-cop who falls in love with a woman who he can’t dominate. Friedkin told him that Stallone should stick to what he does best unless he has an urge to be Laurence Olivier. Stallone then wanted John Herzfeld to direct him in it, but they didn’t even get to work with each other until 2017 when Herzfeld had directed Stallone in Escape Plan 3 (a.k.a. Escape Plan: The Extractors).
The above and below stills come from Prince of the Sun, which was released in 1990. It wasn’t released in H.K. cinemas for a reason that hasn’t been convincingly explained. When I did a Chinese web search to find out when it was released in 1990, the translated reason was that it couldn’t be released in H.K. because the local market for fantasy films was in a slump. It only got a theatrical release in Japan and Taiwan. Ironically, the production briefly shot in Taiwan. In The Martial Arts Companion (a 1992 book by John Corcoran), it was revealed that Cynthia returned to the States in 1988. Going by the dailies that are available on YouTube, the filming of the China O’Brien duology (two movies in 6 weeks) was already underway by late June. It was during the filming of the first movie that the offer from Stallone via Friedkin’s phone call had transpired.
In Hong Kong Action Cinema (1995), it’s stated that Sly decided not to go through with The Executioner because he wanted to try his hand at comedy. It’s possible that he was inspired by Jackie’s Miracles (1989) when the time came to do Oscar in 1990. The timing fits. It’s just such a shame that no critic thought that the role of Snaps had fit Sly like a glove. The funny thing about Miracles is that Eddie Murphy had a similar movie that came out afterwards – Harlem Nights (also released in 1989). In the March 1994 issue of Impact, Cynthia explained why The Executioner didn’t materialize: “There were a lot of reasons for that film not happening. For one thing, it was with Stallone’s own company, and he had so many commitments. He had ten films to do. Then he got this idea that he didn’t want to do action pictures. He wanted to do comedies.”
It’s too bad that Friedkin didn’t go out of his way to check out more from Cynthia’s past and future work, because she had the makings of a superstar e.g. as with Lady Reporter, Prince of the Sun contains a stunt that involves carrying a child except the stunt involves fighting for a prolonged period of time as opposed to jumping off a building. Friedkin’s 2006 memoir (The Friedkin Connection) offers no comment whatsoever on The Executioner. This suggests that he would rather forget the whole sorry (if not sordid) affair. As a way of coming full circle to the beginning of this article, June 1985 is when Cynthia went to H.K. to star in Yes, Madam. It was released in late November because filming was constantly delayed due to the H.K. tradition of people working on multiple projects concurrently.
On the tenth anniversary of her immigration, there was an issue of Black Belt where she claimed that June 1985 was when she went to H.K. despite the fact that she went on to say that production lasted for seven and a half months. With the movie being released in November, it makes no sense for herself to have been there for that duration unless she got the month wrong or if the movie was already in production by the time that she flew over. In the 1992 issue of Black Belt, she said she did six more films in H.K. after Yes, Madam before leaving for the States in 1988. Therefore, City Cops was made before China O’Brien instead of afterwards.