By Nick Craig and Chenh Nim

About ten years ago if you were to mention that Hong Kong actors were to take the lead in major studio pictures, people would suggest medical help. However, in recent years Hong Kong film makers have begun to venture towards Hollywood to try and conquer the West. It all started with the maestro of mayhem, John Woo, who gained a massive following in the West with his films The Killer and Hard Boiled. Other performers followed such as Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4), Michelle Yoah (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Jackie Chan (Rush Hour), all leaving their mark on Western audiences.

Now a new face has arrived on the scene and unlike his counterparts who ventured into motion pictures, he decided to carve a niche for himself in the more competitive media of television, that someone being none other than the big brother of Hong Kong cinema, Sammo Hung and the series being Martial Law, an American martial arts crime show complete with stunts and humour. Martial Law the TV series was an idea bounced around by the American, Andre Morgan and Stanley Tong, native of Hong Kong. The owner of Ruddy Morgan Productions, Morgan had produced a large amount of martial arts films, with the Hong Kong based Tong having been a stunt man, camera operator and scriptwriter. Together they envisaged Martial Law as a contemporary martial arts show, but the project was held awaiting development with Summer/Autumn 1999 pencilled-in for the filming of a pilot. However, Morgan mentioned the concept to the president of CBS Television, Leslie Moonves, who liked the idea and quickly arranged a meeting with both Morgan and Tong. Another producer, Carlton Cuse (who had created the series Nash Bridges), was recruited to write a fast-paced screenplay that needed to exhibit action, humour, plotline and style.

Meanwhile, Morgan and Tong began searching for their leading man and decided on the vastly experienced Hong Kong martial arts actor Sammo Hung. A major star in his homeland, Sammo was born in 1952 and has made over one hundred films, with perhaps his most famous role being in Enter The Dragon, where he sparred with Bruce Lee. At the age of nine Sammo attended the Peking Opera School, where he studied theatre that included an acrobatic style of fighting and made his first film appearance when he was twelve. Besides being an actor Hung has also produced and directed movies, including First Mission and Project A, with his old friend Jackie Chan.

The three producers had six weeks to write, film and edit the pilot, although Tong negotiated with Moonves that they would only film thirty minutes of the episode, but this would have to contain all the aforementioned requirements. Moonves watched the presentation on a flight to New York, deciding there and then that Martial Law would be among CBS Television's new Autumn line-up and the complete pilot would air on September 26th, 1998. The pilot, Shanghai Express sees Chinese super-cop, Captain Sammo Hung arrive in Los Angeles on an exchange of culture exercise. However, his real reason for coming to the city of angels is to track down international criminal, Lee Hei and discover the whereabouts of his female protégé Chin Pei Pei, who is undercover posing as one of Hei's gang.

Although one of his new partners Detective Dana Doyle (Tammy Lauren) is initially hostile, his other new colleagues Detective Louis Malone (Louis Mandylor) and Captain Benjamin Winship (Tom Wright) are dazzled by his martial arts skills and Eastern philosophies. Taking the empty apartment next door to where Louis lives, Sammo then goes with his new friend to a recording of the game show, The Price Is Right, with American presenter Bob Baker guest-starring as himself. Chosen to be a contestant, Sammo wins all the furniture for his new home. The storyline continued in the second episode Diamond Fever, with Pei Pei assisting Sammo's investigations from the inside.

Initially, second billing on the show went to the blonde actress Tammy Lauren (as Dana) who had previous TV experience having had recurring roles in Walker: Texas Ranger, Home Improvement and The Visitor. Having a black belt in karate, she was more than adequate for the demanding fight scenes having begun the sport when she was eleven. Lauren departed the series after filming the fifth episode Cop Out, causing part of the opening titles to be re-filmed and consequently erasing any visual reference to the Dana character. Tom Wright played Captain Winship, the commander of the specialist major crimes unit at the San Vincente Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Wright's television credits include Chicago Hope, Seinfeld and L.A. Law.

In the third episode Dead Ringers, Chen Pei Pei (alias actress Kelly Hu) officially joins the squad and starts using her American name, Grace Chen. Before starting her acting career Kelly was Miss Teen USA 1985, going onto represent her native Hawaii in the Miss USA Pageant. Her television credits include Tour Of Duty, Melrose Place, Murder One and a regular role in the later episodes of Nash Bridges and on the strength of this she was offered the part of Grace through her friend Stanley Tong.

Louis Malone was realised on screen by Australian actor Louis Mandylor, who came to the producer's attention having had a recurring role on Cuse's Nash Bridges. As he had also filmed several pilots for CBS the producers knew he could act, but it was his background of professional footballer, boxer and Thai kick boxer which obviously assisted in getting him the part.

Dana's replacement, the fast-talking Terrell Parker played by Arsenio Hall, did not arrive until the ninth instalment, How Sammo Got His Groove Back. Initially credited as a guest-star for several episodes, Hall's involvement caused the opening titles to be reworked again as Parker joined the team. Hall also took over second billing, being credited on the same caption as Sammo. Having started his career as a stand-up comedian, Arsenio Hall has progressed into producing his own variety series The Arsenio Hall Show, but is more famous as Eddie Murphy's sidekick in the movie Coming To America. Hall's addition to the cast gave the series a somewhat more humorous air, although this element was not allowed to take over and Arsenio also had his share of dramatic scenes. In fact Hall's profile on the series was much higher than Tammy Lauren's, as Parker became Sammo's best friend and Louis Mandylor's character was pushed slightly into the background.

When formatting the show Cuse took Morgan and Tong's basic idea and created a fast-moving episodic series, where there was a comradeship between the regular characters. As in keeping with the times there would be continuity between instalments, meaning that the episodes have to be shown in a specific order. The main influences on Martial Law came from Hong Kong action movies, although the basic police structure and crime stories have their roots in the many American cop shows made since the fifties. However, the element of having Sammo as a man out of place in the USA, who due to his strong character continues to react exactly as if he were on home ground was not new. This concept had already worked well on TV for both McCloud and Due South and on the big screen with Crocodile Dundee.

Devising a tight schedule, Cuse and Tong allowed only a single day's shoot per fight scene, which were possibly the most complicated ever staged in a TV series especially when they involved props like a large vase and musical instruments. Cuse was the first to admit that it took time to execute a good combat sequence, but given their restricted shooting time it was difficult to have spectacular fight scenes in every episode. Thankfully for the production, both Hung and Hall were fast at picking-up their moves, though filming these intricate sequences did have a habit of taking longer than planned. Sammo did all his own stunts, a fact that was confirmed by the amusing Jackie Chan style out-takes at the end of each show.In the episode Funny Money, investigations lead Sammo and Louis to an apartment where they find an electric guitar.

In the episode Funny Money, investigations lead Sammo and Louis to an apartment where they find an electric guitar. Discovering that Sammo can play, Louis encourages him to do a traditional Chinese song, only to be surprised when Sammo churns out the opening chords of Deep Purple's heavy metal classic, Smoke On The Water. For this episode the closing credits are minus the usual theme, as Sammo on electric guitar joins a heavy metal band for a rendition of Twist And Shout, using the arrangement made famous by The Beatles.

In the following episode Cop Out, Captain Winship gets involved in the action, using a two-fisted boxing technique. Meanwhile, Sammo acquires transportation in the form of a late sixties Cadillac convertible and this vehicle featured regularly in the later first season episodes, contrasting greatly with Parker's state-of-the-art Porsche.
Actress, Julia Campbell, as the character Melanie George is introduced in the sixth instalment Extreme Measures and she becomes a romantic interest for Sammo. Initially, Sammo is reluctant to pursue her, partly due to her notorious cooking, though she turns up in several storylines towards the end of the season. In Captive Hearts, Melanie and Sammo have a rooftop moonlit dinner together, before the episode ends with them dancing the night away. However, in an unrehearsed move the crew decided to liven things up and as the episode concludes they rush into shot and also start dancing along to the music.

Towards the end of the season Sammo's Chinese mentor, Master Reng, visits L.A. looking up his old star pupil. However, Reng's other star pupil Lee Hei is also back in town, pursuing criminal activities that results in a confrontation with Sammo in the episode Requiem. Reng saves Sammo's life, but is killed by Lee Hei in the process. The final episode End Game had the unit under threat of being disbanded, due to their failure to apprehend Lee Hei and now Sammo is more determined than ever to stop his archenemy and the season ends on a cliff-hanger as both men fall to their apparent deaths from a helicopter.

Here in the UK, Bravo transmitted Martial Law on satellite and later Five acquired all twenty-two first season episodes for terrestrial transmission starting in April 1999. Shown primetime Sunday evenings, Sammo's antics quickly gained popularity and pushed the series near the top of the most popular programmes for the channel.

When devising Martial Law, Cuse wanted to create a series that brought together the cultures of both the East and the West and managed to do just that, albeit with the able assistance of Morgan, Tong and Sammo. Hence, the one time unthinkable situation of an Asian lead in an American action series became a reality.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Action TV No:1 published November 1999.© Nick Craig and Chenh Nim, June 2003.