Ed Harris’ stellar performance as the fall guy in “China Moon” elevates John Bailey’s noir mystery to a cut or two above the usual Hollywood thriller. Despite some plot holes, the thematic mixture of passion and danger and the pleasure of visual style should prove alluring enough to make this genre item (which was shot in 1992) more popular with audiences than the recent slate of Orion films.
On the surface, “China Moon” seems too explicitly conscious of its genre’s themes, signs and visual strategy. Set in small-town Florida, it immediately recalls Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” as well as Victor Nunez’s Florida tale of greed and corruption, “A Flash of Green,” which also starred Harris. And the triangle involving Harris, a lonely homicide detective who falls for Madeleine Stowe, a beautifully seductive married woman, bears resemblance to such noir classics as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
Here, however, the appealing, mysterious lady is not married to an old or crippled man, but to a young and successful banker (Charles Dance). This is just the first of a number of alterations and twists that cast fresh light on the time-honored genre. Indeed, this version humanizes Stowe’s femme fatale by making her husband physically abusive and engaged in his own adulterous affair.
The tension in Roy Carlson’s efficient, pared-down narrative derives from the complex relationship between Harris and ambitious rookie detective Benicio Del Toro, once Harris gets drawn into a murder scheme.
The well-developed characters, with whom the audience feels an immediate, emphatic connection, are distinctively pungent, the way they were in noir thrillers of the 1940s.
Bailey, a first-rate cinematographer making his fictional feature directorial debut, knows that it’s not plot but characterization that carries viewers through the best thrillers — the bits of personality as filtered through the story’s turns. He therefore takes his time in establishing the specific context of each of the four major figures.
Like other good thrillers, “China Moon” depends on long silent moments and acute observation of physical milieu. To make the story more gripping, Bailey relies on the emotional pull of such forces as psychological obsession and domination rather than graphic violence.
He’s at his best in scenes where the characters reveal some quirks and hide others in an intriguing web of steamy sex and ominous evil. But some viewers may be bothered by the tale’s underlying cynicism, which is reflected in the conduct of its law officers.
Harris brings his customary quiet, focused intensity to a tailor-made role, one that calls for equal measure of virility and vulnerability. Endowed with the glamorous looks of the old movie queens, Stowe is also well cast as a dreamy femme fatale with an active imagination and strong feelings.
There is moody, evocative cinematography by vet French lenser Willy Kurant of the Lakeland-Ocala-Tampa area, aregion that reportedly has not been used in film before. With the expert editing of Carol Littleton and Jill Savitt, “China Moon” moves along smoothly, setting up the situations and delivering the payoffs.
Shrewd viewers may be able to detect at least one major plot development that telegraphs itself well before it arrives. And the final 15 minutes are weak — a concession to the genre’s current requirements for desperate violence and quick resolutions.
Nonetheless, unlike thrillers that target the viscera, “China Moon” avoids slick montage and the cheap thrills of shock cuts and instead aims for the eyes — and heart.