The most impressive thing you can say about "China Moon" is that it cares enough to steal from the very best.
The movie, with minor adjustments, is a virtual tracing of Lawrence Kasdan's dazzlingly provocative and amusing "Body Heat" of 12 years ago, Kasdan's first movie and still the best thing he's ever done.
"Moon's" lack of originality, however, doesn't destroy it. Quite the opposite: So frank is it in its admiration of the original that it manages to re-create ersatz variants of the same pleasures in milieu (sultry Florida nights) and plotting (clever). It also has great fun with the dumb guy/smart babe theme so beloved of the film noir universe, and it comes up with a few new twists.
What it lacks isn't so much cleverness but heat: Kasdan, in making Kathleen Turner an instant star, suggests the depths of erotic debauchery between her and poor William Hurt, as Ned Racine, a dumb lawyer. (Key line, throaty Turner to Hurt, on the subject of his stupidity: "I like that in a man.")
Poor John Bailey, the British cinematographer making his feature debut, isn't quite so lucky. As a star-crossed pair of lovers, Ed Harris and Madeleine Stowe are too cerebral to generate such sparks, and although the movie insists that you feel the heat, you don't. No smoke, no fire, no sparks. Not even the sniffles. Just intelligent actors pretending to heat and fire.
In the Kasdan version, dumb lawyer Hurt was suckered by Turner into killing her husband so that she could inherit his loot; then she cleverly betrayed him so that he took the fall. In this version, she's still married to a rich creep (Charles Dance), the setting is still sultry Florida, but this time he's the star homicide detective of a small coastal city. In the movie's very vivid opening, we watch him read and solve a homicide in a truly impressive way.
Later that night -- the scene completely echoes "Body Heat" -- he spies her at a bar in a sleazy club. Outside on the veranda -- it was the boardwalk in "Heat" -- he starts up a conversation laden with double entendre and deep romantic yearning. Soon, they're involved, her husband is becoming more brutal, she's buying a gun and trouble is seething in the jasmine-scented air.
In this one, she plans to kill her husband, then decides not to, then has to anyway, and involves Harris's cop in using his expertise to cover up the crime. The movie's best theme, however, is quite original: It's the week of discomfort and subtly escalating anxiety that Harris feels as his heretofore thick, young new partner (Benico Del Toro) ever so swiftly unravels the foolproof plan that Harris has concocted. That's sheer, pure noir: the feeling of sick helplessness a sucker feels as he is ever so delicately deconstructed by the forces of fate, circumstances and an even smarter cookie.
One comic note: The plot turns on a point of ballistics that happens to be, however believable on screen, utterly preposterous. I enjoyed the moment where Harris "measures" a recovered bullet and learns from the caliper reading that it's a .38 and not a 9-millimeter; we even see the big 80 (signifying the hundredths and thousandths places) of a measurement that the filmmakers want us to assume is .380 for a .38. Oh ho ho.
Allow me to point out something that I doubt you'll read anywhere else: The measurement for a .38 Special is actually .357 thousandths of an inch, not .380; and the measurement for a 9 millimeter is .355 thousandths of an inch. It's almost impossible to tell them apart without weighing them, and even that's difficult if the bullet is deformed. Remember, you read it here first.
Starring Ed Harris and Madeleine Stowe
Directed by John Bailey
Released by Orion