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O.C. MOVIE REVIEW : 'China Moon' Doesn't Quite Gel but Keeps You Guessing

March 04, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a while since we've had a murder mystery where the lead character talks about the strange things people do under a full moon.

"China Moon," starring Ed Harris as a homicide detective who becomes involved in a crime of passion with a sulky, abused millionaire's wife in Central Florida, played by Madeleine Stowe, is full of portentous mumbo-jumbo.

It's also full of hard-boiled attitudes out of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. The combo doesn't quite gel: when Harris' Kyle Bodine announces that he's an "orphan of destiny," you begin to long for Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff to step in and set him straight.

John Bailey, the celebrated cinematographer ("American Gigolo," "Ordinary People") making his directorial debut, doesn't try to shoot the works. His direction is a lot less florid than Ron Carlson's script. (Carlson, according to the press notes, "wrote counterintelligence manuals for the defense industry and the federal government before turning to screenplays.") Bailey's straight-ahead craftsmanship is an honest approach to all the crime-thriller shenanigans and switcheroos; he hews to the characters and this pays off when the surprises come. (When the big plot twist finally kicked in, a woman at the preview screening shouted, " Now we have a movie.)

The characters don't have much depth--just enough to elevate them from cardboard to poster board. Without the presence of Harris and Stowe, "China Moon" might have been ridiculous, but they both seem entranced by each other's moody, fixated stares. (On the heels of "Blink," Stowe seems to be making a specialty of ravaged, neurasthenic waifs.)

Perhaps they are playing out an actor's fantasy of enveloping oneself in film-noir fatalism. This may be the fantasy of the filmmakers too, which is why "China Moon" (countywide) never quite seems real. It's a play-act thriller that retraces all the familiar paces without a wink of wit or irony.

Charles Dance, as the rich rotter of a husband, fits into the scummy pageant with a vengeance, and so does Kyle's partner, Lamar, played with a slippery strangeness by the highly gifted Benicio Del Toro. (He played Rosie Perez's husband in "Fearless.") They all deserve to be in a richer and twistier thriller, but at least "China Moon" keeps you guessing.

'CHINA MOON'

Madeleine Stowe: Rachel

Ed Harris Kyle: Bodine

Benicio Del Toro: Lamar

Charles Dance: Rupert

An Orion Pictures release of a Tig production. Director John Bailey. Producer Barrie M. Osborne. Screenplay by Roy Carlson. Cinematographer Willy Kurant. Editors Carol Littleton, Jill Savitt. Costumes Elizabeth McBride. Music George Fenton. Production design Conrad E. Angone. Art director Robert W. Henderson. Set decorator Don K. Ivie. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

MPAA rating: R. Times guidelines: It includes a violent murder, as well as scenes of bloodstains and nudity.

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