China Moon Review

When Lawrence Kasdan made Body Heat in 1981, the idea of revisiting the classic structure of the film noir and updating the concept of the femme fatale was (give or take Polanski's considerably different Chinatown which had an agenda all of its own) reasonably original. His clever script, along with strong performances from William Hurt and Kathleen Turner and a potent visual sense of tempestuous Florida locations, made it a genuinely exciting movie. Twenty years later, the situation is somewhat different. We've sat through so many updated noirs, with femmes, fatale or otherwise, falling over themselves to gull, seduce or seek protection from countless straight-arrow heroes, that the formula is as good as dead. The ne plus ultra of the genre came with Paul Verhoeven's gleefully self-reflexive Basic Instinct, offering us a marvellous femme in the person of Sharon Stone who flashed and flirted her way through one of the most gorgeously photographed and luxuriously idiotic thrillers of recent years. The looniest offspring of Kasdan's movie was Richard Rush's irresistably nutty Color of Night, in which psychiatrist Bruce Willis fell into bed with Jane March while trying to deal with a set of hammy patients out to chew the wallpaper, furniture and anything else they could get their teeth into. Sadly, China Moon is neither as cunning as Verhoeven's film or as loopy as Rush's, so it tends to fall between two stools. Made in 1991 but not released until 1994, it's too serious to be entertainingly bad and too bad to be taken seriously.

The plot is familiar stuff. Brilliant cop Kyle Bodine, played with misguided conviction by Ed Harris, becomes involved with beautiful abused wife Rachel Munroe (Stowe). Her husband, Rupert (Dance), is a bully and serial adulterer with a penchant for smashing dinner plates and the worst American accent this side of Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules. Bodine and Mrs Munroe get terribly friendly while swimming in a lake and even friendlier back at his house and they begin to discuss ways in which they could dispose of Rupert. A complex plan is hatched whereby Rachel will go to Miami, surreptitiously rent a car, establish her presence beyond doubt, drive back to kill Rupert and then return before she is missed. But this goes awry when Rachel is forced to shoot her husband in self-defence with an unregistered gun. Arriving on the scene, Bodine agrees to help her cover-up the killing but he quickly realises that he is getting in over his head.

The problems with China Moon largely lie in the plotting. The story depends entirely upon two things. Firstly, that Bodine is the most brilliant cop in Florida, as established in a lengthy opening when he investigates a killing which turns out to have absolutely no relevance to the central storyline, and secondly, that he would make so many mistakes in covering up Rupert's death and get caught in so many silly little lies. Bodine, as played by Harris, begins as an ice-cool sonuvabitch who rails against killers who are sloppy and leave behind so many clues. But as the film progresses, he turns into an emotive and irrational mess who begins obsessing about the rumours that Rachel has had many lovers. Nor does it make sense that this man, who is obviously good at his job, would throw it all away for the sake of a woman who he has only known for a matter of days. He says he loves Rachel but there's no passion in their lovemaking in the lake and at his apartment. There's no real heat between the principles and that's a major problem in this sort of film. We have to believe in a love - or at least a lust - so intense that it overrides every other instinct. In Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder's film which provided the model for Body Heat, we can understand Fred McMurray's lust for Barbara Stanwyck even though there isn't a single sex scene - it's in their eyes, their body language and the way they talk to each other. In Body Heat, when Hurt breaks the plate-glass door in order to get to Turner, you can see the way sexual passion could turn a sensible man into an animal in heat. There's none of this in China Moon. The characters only behave in a given way because the plot won't come together otherwise. We shouldn't be able to see the mechanics, it should simply be inevitable.

Ed Harris is a fine actor but he's totally miscast here. His best work has been in supporting roles; Apollo 13, Absolute Power, Glengarry Glen Ross - and he simply doesn't have the star power to hold this film together. He's good at the little details - Bodine's arrogance as he describes the crime scene as "The Gong Show of murder" for example - but he's simply not believable as a man who falls head over heels in love with a woman he barely knows. It would help if there was some chemistry between him and Madeleine Stowe but there isn't even a slight spark. Stowe is terrible in this part and demonstrates no passion or pain. She's nothing more than a hole in the screen and this is sad, particularly given that she's done good work in other films such as Twelve Monkeys and the underrated Blink. The supporting cast isn't a great deal better. Charles Dance isn't bad but has absolutely no menace as the husband and his American accent is appalling. Benicio Del Toro wanders through looking very bored, this being four years before his revelatory performance in The Usual Suspects.

The script is packed with lines which carefully explain to us things that we've already worked out for ourselves and which was presumably intended to help the slower members of the audience. There is a twist, if you stick with the film long enough, but it's not an especially good or convincing one. The demented final scene is worth seeing however, if only because it's an example of how much fun the film could have been if it had possessed a detectable sense of humour. A more surprising failure is that the movie is so visually undistinguished. John Bailey, here acting as director, is a very talented cinematographer - watch Mishima and prepare to be dazzled - but he has no sense of pace or atmosphere and he tends to put the actors into straight lines as if he can't think what to do with the compositions. It might have helped if he had served as his own DP, especially given the sensational Florida locations, but the one he chose, Willy Kurant, manages to do little apart from offer us some very nice sunsets. Little advantage is made of the decision to shoot in Scope. This kind of movie needs a visual sheen to get it over the bumpier byways of the narrative and the flat competency of the technical aspects of China Moon simply makes it a plod through territory we've covered far too many times before.

The Disc

China Moon - now there's a meaningless title for you - wasn't released in cinemas in the UK. Lost during the break-up of Orion in 1992, it languished on the shelves until 1994 and eventually crept out on UK home video in 1995. In the unlikely event that there are any rabid fans of this movie out there, MGM have released a DVD edition which is technically pleasing but otherwise unremarkable.

The film was released back in 2001 by Columbia but the rights have reverted to MGM (as they did with Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey and Silence of the Lambs). The original release contained a making-of featurette and a trailer but on this new release we only get the latter in the way of bonus materials.

The picture quality is generally excellent. Transferred in its original 2.35:1 ratio and anamorphically enhanced, I doubt this film could look much better. The colours are breathtaking, the level of detail is high and there is no artifacting to be seen. Particularly impressive are the night scenes which are very well defined, the subtle shadings coming across beautifully. My only criticism is that there is some print damage in places with brief instances of scratching and some white 'popping' here and there.

The soundtrack is a straight transfer of the original Dolby Stereo track presented in Dolby Surround. It's a good, if somewhat basic, track and there are plenty of atmospheric weather effects to keep the right and left channels busy. Most of the dialogue is monophonic but there are some directional moments. The music is well transferred, especially the blues singing in the bar scenes.

The original theatrical trailer is present on the disc, running just over a minute. There are 16 chapter stops and the usual range of subtitles.

I can't believe that China Moon has many admirers. I'm a big fan of Ed Harris but this isn't one of his finest moments and the film has little else to recommend it. MGM's DVD offers a damn good transfer but this seems a wasted effort in the circumstances and I'd rather they put more effort into giving this sort of attention to some of the good films in their catalogue rather than third-division nonsense like this.

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