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'China Moon'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 04, 1994


John Bailey
Ed Harris;
Benicio Del Toro;
Charles Dance;
Madeleine Stowe
sexuality and adult situations

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"China Moon" is smarter than "Basic Instinct" and sexier too, as well as being the most stylish, most convincing love story since "The Last of the Mohicans."

You read all the time about the new TV crime shows and the way they take their viewers inside the gritty daily reality of a cop's life. But the two-way mirrors, the coarse cross-chatter, the swish-panning around the squad room or jump-cutting through a gauzy, Playboy Channel-style love scene has never seemed all that verite to me. What seems real to me is what Ed Harris does as the homicide detective Kyle Bodine in John Bailey's thriller -- real and true and filled with absolute conviction.

When Bodine enters a crime scene, he doesn't flop around the room eating a doughnut and flicking ashes on the deceased. He comes in like a man who respects himself and his job and who's proud of his ability to do it well. Everybody in Polk County, Fla., thinks he's the best there is. And from the way he works through the clues in the apartment where a murder took place early in the film, you can see why. "If you kill somebody in Brayton," his partner says, quoting the local wisdom, "Kyle Bodine's gonna catch you."

Bodine is a connoisseur of murders. He loves to look over the clues the murderer left behind, all the places he messed up and gave himself away, to piece together just what happened at the time of the crime. As he always says, they all mess up sooner or later. The difference between Bodine and most other movie and television cops today is that he's not a cynic. You don't see things, he tells his green new partner Lamar (Benicio Del Toro), because you're too bored to look. The whole world is alive every minute with thousands of significant details. All you have to do is look.

Bodine is proud to be on red alert to the telling details of the world; it's what gives him his edge. But it's this pride that trips him up in a bar one night when he meets Rachel (Madeleine Stowe), a miserable beauty stuck in an abusive marriage to a big wheel at the bank (Charles Dance).

Bailey works from a brilliantly crafted, often inspired screenplay from Roy Carlson. Especially early on in the picture, the partnership works at a very high level, for example when Bodine and Rachel first meet, and the seductive sparing between them begins a showerstorm of verbal sparks. With "China Moon," Bailey steps up to make his debut as a director after years as a cinematographer working for the likes of Larry Kasdan ("The Big Chill" and "The Accidental Tourist") and Paul Schrader ("Cat People" and "American Gigolo"). And it's clear from this impressive debut that Bailey has been keeping his eyes open too.

The connection to Kasdan is significant because the picture "China Moon" most resembles is Kasdan's "Body Heat," the main exception being that this new film is harder and hotter and more sophisticated. At its center, "China Moon" also possesses a more complicated heroine than "Body," where Kathleen Turner just seemed to lift her soap opera training and apply it to big screen melodrama. Stowe, by contrast, is utterly plausible as a woman who has grown tough from the many years of loveless neglect. In one completely wordless scene, Stowe fixes herself in a mirror, brushing her hair with an expression of pleasure in her own handsomeness that she hadn't felt for years -- the pleasure that a woman shows in her face only when she's making herself beautiful for someone she loves. And, in this simple way, Bailey and Carlson have not only demonstrated a complex idea, plus a vital element of the relationship, but also the crucial fact that she is, indeed, in love with Bodine; that she is something more than a manipulating femme fatale.

I liked very much the gravity that Harris brings to his character here. This is not a frivolous man, given to casual affairs and one-nighters. He's a serious person and an honorable one. So when he goes over the edge for Rachel, his fall is genuinely tragic. In this case of the tragic hero, the flaw is arrogance. Because he knows more about solving murders than any man in Florida, Bodine allows himself to believe that he can beat the system when Rachel gets in deep trouble. And yet as quick as Bodine is, Rachel seems even quicker and vastly more lethal. It's a classic case of blood simple: Passion turns Bodine into a sap.

The movie isn't perfect. I wish the story's climax were as good as its opening seductions. About halfway through, when Bodine's plan begins to unravel, the picture appears to lose energy and get bogged down in the details. Also, the denouement -- during which manipulations within manipulations are unraveled -- isn't as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. Yet, still, the movie kept me guessing and on the edge of my seat throughout. It's the best surprise I've had at the movies in months.

China Moon is rated R for sexuality and adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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