A Film a Week - Bodies at Rest / Chen mo de zheng ren

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
For the action movies fans, Renny Harlin has earned the status of a living legend with the films he made during the 90s: "Die Hard 2" (1990), "Cliffhanger" (1993), "The Long Kiss Goodnight" (1996) and "Deep Blue Sea" (1999). For the last five years, the Finnish-American filmmaker has been mostly working in mainland China and Hong Kong where he has helmed three films so far. "Skiptrace" (2016) was a reasonably fun action-crime-comedy starring Jackie Chan and "Jackass'" Johnny Knoxville, while "Legend of the Ancient Sword" was an expensive flop. His latest movie, "Bodies at Rest", is an addition to the collection of Christmas-set action flicks, which premiered at the last year's edition of Hong Kong International Film Festival, before a short festival tour that included Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy and Edinburgh International Film Festival. The theatrical release focused on the Far East markets ensued. The film is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD platforms.

The action takes place in a single space, the city morgue in Hong Kong, over the course of a stormy Christmas Eve. Dr Nick Chen (Nick Cheung, the star of many Hong Kong genre movies, most recently seen in "Integrity") is a veteran medical examiner. The young intern Lynn (Yang Zi) is on her last shift before returning to Beijing. The rest of the crew on the supposedly quiet graveyard shift consists of a funny fatso night watchman Uncle King (Ma Shuliang) and an oblivious cleaner (Jin Au-Yeeung), both of whom serve as comic reliefs, each in his own way.

The idyll is interrupted by the trio of masked assailants, the ringleader Santa (the Taiwanese actor Richie Jen of Dante Lam's "Fire of Conscience" fame) and his two sidekicks, brothers Rudolph (Feng Jiayi) and Elf (Carlos Chan) whose goal is to retrieve the bullet from the body of a beautiful young woman (Clara Lee, also seen in flashbacks) who is a victim of a drug-related shooting. Enter the plot twists and turns, such as Dr Nick's sly tricks and the unexpected visits from the Health Department official (Roger Kwak) and the duo of unsuspecting cops, the cat-and-mouse games, the fistfights and about a tom of shattered glass.

The original script by David Lesser was obviously intended for the American market, and it was only later translated and converted to the context of Hong Kong after being shelved for some time. It is more of a variation on the familiar theme, but the setting of a glass building that radiates with the hi-tech chic is well used by Renny Harlin's sure-handed directing. However, the characterization of the ones involved is way to simple and frivolous, which leads to severe missteps in logic. For instance, while Lynn is driven by the pure survival instinct, Dr Nick is way too cool (especially since played by Nick Cheung) to pass off as an everyman in an unexpected situation. Also, the references to the action classics, American as well as Hong Kong ones, (obviously, John McTiernan's original "Die Hard" and John Woo's "Hard Boiled" get massive shout-outs) are packed with more irony than the intended moments of deadpan humour, but Lesser and Harlin still manage to sell at least one legendary one-liner.

Although Harlin has fallen from the Hollywood's grace for a number of misfires like Cutthroat Island" (1995), he is still more than a decent craftsman to pull the "screenwriting 101" script neatly. His approach to the action itself could be considered a bit of a hybrid between the American and East-Asian way: the fights are choreographed masterfully, but are shot in rapidly edited shaky-cam close-ups that favour the intensity over the clarity of the action itself. Also the cat-and-mouse game predominantly between Cheung's and Jen's character, with the others serving pretty much as sidekicks, is effective enough and the interruptions are well-timed, albeit quite expected. The same could be said for the acting cues (the actors did not exactly have a lot of material to work with) and the technical aspects, especially Anthony Pun's slick cinematography in bluish tones that work well with the toned-down neon lighting, contrasted only with the bright CGI explosions for the finale.

In the end, "Bodies at Rest" plays way too safe to be considered a masterpiece in any way, but it was not even intended by the creative team behind it. But it is a fun thing to watch for the time being and to forget it once it is over and it also works as a fix of 90s action nostalgia that works well both in the theatres and on video.

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