The 1991 (finally released theatrically by Orion Pictures in 1994) romantic neo-noir thriller China Moon establishes early its central character's most palpable traits and attributes, which deceptively foretell his eventual unraveling and undoing. Ed Harris plays cagey, intuitive (fictional) Brayton, Florida (filmed in Lakeland, Florida and the surrounding area) detective Kyle Bodine, whose observant attention to detail allows him to read murder scenes like road signs, knowing within minutes who the perpetrator is. Because he is good at his job, he rarely considers why he is doing it; when questioned by his somewhat green, and in Bodine's words, “okay,” partner, Lamar Dickey (Benicio Del Toro) why he is a cop, Bodine replies that he knew there was a reason. He will think about it sometime.
Bodine's intelligence and awareness prove to be indirect vulnerabilities when placed alongside his ostensible lack of greater motivation. When he discovers a beautiful, mysterious woman named Rachel Munro—played with almost vampiric luminescence by Madeleine Stowe—he falls head over heels for her. Unfortunately she happens to be married to an equally powerful and abusive local banking kingpin, Rupert Munro (a one-note Charles Dance). Gradually, the film's tone shifts from the fairly sumptuous tale of passion between Bodine and Rachel to a serpentine murder mystery.
China Moon is longtime cinematographer John Bailey's (whose credits include American Gigolo, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) directorial debut. The lighting the seasoned director of photography utilizes allows for some mesmerizing visualizations which enhance what is fundamentally a routine potboiler. The screenplay, by Roy Carlson, is sufficiently serviceable when it must be, providing just enough in the way of narrative glue for the picture's subtly dyspeptic yarn to give impetus to the ocular pleasures China Moon offers to the viewer. Bailey and Belgian cinematographer Willy Kurant ably conspire to create a visually rich canvas of coolly colored nighttime vistas and interiors. One particularly memorable setting is the lushly romantic setting of a lake. The reflection of the “china moon”—Bodine tells Rachel that his mother used the term for a full moon, under which people would “do strange things,” he states—is captured against the smooth, seemingly tranquil surface of the body of water in delicately composed shots.
When finding himself in the unenviable position of covering up a murder, Bodine's mercurial gifts are turned against him, and as the cliché goes, the hunter becomes the hunted. Bailey and Kurant's occasionally delicious visages figuratively brighten and literally dim the picture as Harris' detective becomes not only wholly entangled in the mystery but the most suspected figure in the film by his fellow officers, including his partner. Following the time-honored noir template, the protagonist's apparent strengths prove to be strangely debilitating, as Bodine's certainty and sharpness leave hints of hubris. Those seeds are indeed immediately sown in the film's prologue, during which Bodine surveys the scene of a homicide with all of the clinical precision of a genuine expert. “Sooner or later,” he says derisively of murderers, “they all fuck up.” Little does he know his tumultuous future when he makes this comment to his colleagues.
China Moon's most sound component of all, however, is the lead performance by Ed Harris. Harris is dynamic and subtle, forceful and equable all at once. He gives a compelling, convincing performance that keeps the film humming even when too many coincidences and plot holes needlessly distract from the vastly more important emotional through-line with which Harris endows the humble film. Harris' eyes are especially captivating in a film peopled with indelible pools of light as eyes, most notably his costar, Stowe's, which accurately belie her truer nature. Harris makes every little movement of his eyes matter, and it fits wonderfully with his character's chief gift of observation. There is a doom in his eyes, and it is matched, if not with straightforward and engrossing presence, then with a complementary sense of intrigue by Stowe, working off of the guilelessness and fierceness Harris supplies.
Where Stowe comes up short is in the range of her performance; the screenplay and Bailey's uneven handling of his actors contrive to limit her. Whereas many noirs allow for the female presence to display greater shades of character, China Moon is actually the opposite. Stowe's Rachel is if anything too nebulous and murky a figure, and the fact that the very ending hinges on her true motivations leaves a peculiar aftertaste as there has been minimal buttressing of her emotional state beyond common, hoary and hackneyed abused-wife syndrome scenes. As with other conventional neo-noirs that follow similar storylines, the husband, here played by Dance, is completely one-dimensional and totally unsympathetic; if and when such a character meets a violent end, the ramifications of his demise are almost always only of interest insomuch as they relate to the other characters' fates.
Nevertheless, Harris' carefully calibrated turn excellently draws the viewer in with great, meticulous thoughtfulness. When Bodine finally reaches his breaking point and lashes out, the viewer is caught up with him; it's not an entirely different sensation than relishing the confused, furious righteousness of James Stewart's John “Scottie” Ferguson confronting the inscrutable Kim Novak in the closing moments of Vertigo when Harris' Bodine points the finger of indignation at the untrustworthy Rachel. The sophistication that is missing in other parts of the film is evident whenever Harris makes his presence profoundly felt. In a landscape of noir, marked by countless dupes, sometimes what matters is simply trying to get the last word in. Bodine tries his best, and this flawed film is better for it.