by Robert Weston
This example of a contemporary noir film stars a young Ed Harris, Madeleine Stowe as the femme fatale, with an early appearance by Benicio Del Toro as a wide-eyed rookie cop.
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The term “noir” was first applied to the cinema when French critics wanted describe the “blackness” of the subject matter they saw in wartime American movies. Certainly, the classic noir period occurred circa the nineteen-forties, yet ever since Kathleen Turner drawled her predilection for feeble-witted men in 1981’s Body Heat, the “neo-noir” has proved itself an enduring and popular modern genre.
The upper echelons of the neo-noir is occupied by fully realized crime dramas like Body Heat (1981), Blue Velvet (1986), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Red Rock West (1993), The Last Seduction (1994), Heat (1995) Mona Lisa (1996) and L.A. Confidential (1997). The best neo-noir combines the original generic foundation with self-reflexive irony, greater complexity or outright reversals of elements invented in the classic era. The majority of neo-noir shares a common constraint of a having a relatively low budget, especially when compared to the simultaneous tendency toward commercial blockbusters. At the same time, the film noir made such a strong resurgence in the 1980’s that it spawned its own sub-genre: “Industrial Neo-Noirs” were films made on the cheap by independent companies that hoped to profit from lurid film noir storylines. Industrial neo-noirs have basic settings, feature a handful of lesser-known actors and are filled with customary dollops of sex and corruption.
Today you can find these sorts of films piling up on the direct-to-video shelves of your local rental shop, often in an embarrassing section called “erotic thrillers.” Even though “industrial” features of this sort are mostly a waste of ninety minutes, there is more than one diamond hidden in the rough. Lying somewhere in between the fully realized neo-noir and their direct-to-video cousins is 1994’s China Moon, a consummate example of a neo-noir. The film stars a young Ed Harris, the recurring femme fatale, Madeleine Stowe and features an early appearance of Benicio Del Toro as a wide-eyed rookie cop.
Harris plays a Kyle Bodine, a meticulous Florida cop who falls hard for Rachel Monro (Stowe), a wealthy, unhappily married woman with a reputation for promiscuity. Kyle, a straight-shooting career policeman, has no clue about the local gossip that surrounds Rachel. On the other hand, who can blame her for cheating on an abusive husband who spends most of his time away on business trips and is sleeping with his secretary? Despite Rachel’s reputation, she professes sincere love for Kyle. But this is film noir, and no matter how the strong love it rarely withstands murderous hidden agendas.
Like Body Heat, China Moon employs a sweaty Florida setting and follows the most traditional film noir narrative: An irresistible woman seduces a marginally innocent man and leads him to ruin. Unfortunately, the seduction itself is the film’s weak point. The cloying love sequence between Kyle and Rachel is difficult to watch, if only because it comes off as incredibly contrived and syrupy. Depending on your love life, you might find the courting scenes so cheesy that they end up romantically honest or just so cheesy they stink. I’m of the latter camp.
Once the relationship between Kyle and Rachel is established, however, the story heads toward some decent potboiler suspense. The last half of China Moon is in line with the neo-noir trend for twisty double-crosses. Likely because crime and corruption on its own was covered extensively in the classic era, modern audiences crave the addition of an intelligent mystery—which is not to say that every neo-noir can deliver the goods. For true blue fans of the genre, China Moon is a must-see; for anyone else, stick to Body Heat and the early work of John Dahl.
Robert Weston is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
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