One-time blockbuster purveyor Renny Harlin continues the China phase of his roller coaster career with Bodies at Rest, an efficient action-thriller that seems tailored for the director of Die Hard 2 (1990). Taking place in Hong Kong on Christmas Eve, it finds masked gunmen breaking into a morgue to retrieve some damning evidence only to come up against a pair of resourceful scientists. Appreciably trim at just over 90 minutes, Bodies at Rest has no intention whatsoever of reinventing the wheel. Rather, it aims to give China’s moviegoers a throwback to the kind of Hollywood fare they likely consumed avidly via pirate DVDs in their youth, albeit on a markedly smaller scale.
After swiftly establishing the confined location and festive season, the action gets underway with senior pathologist Nick (Nick Cheung), assertive intern Lynn (Yang Zi) and avuncular, donut-munching security guard Uncle King (Ma Shuliang) having what should be a quiet graveyard shift disrupted by the arrival of three thieves in yuletide-themed masks. The trio is comprised of ringleader Santa (Richie Jen), jittery Rudolph (Feng Jiayi) and dangerously impulsive Elf (Carlos Chan). They instruct Nick to remove an incriminating bullet from the body of a recently slain Triad boss’ daughter only for matters to escalate when Nick pulls a sly switch. What follows is almost entirely expected with thwarted escape attempts, inconvenient visits from people who are unwittingly running the risk of joining the cadavers, and the volatile dynamic between the villains proving that there is no honor amongst thieves. There’s even the threat of a torrential storm to up the ante.
Although his CV features such fondly remembered titles as Cliffhanger (1993), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), Harlin has always been more of a high stakes journeyman than a true action auteur (the festive season as a backdrop for carnage is really Shane Black’s signature). He’s perfectly capable when equipped with the right material and cast but prone to bombast when the elements don’t quite line up. Harlin enjoyed initial success in China with the Jackie Chan/Johnny Knoxville buddy movie Skiptrace (2016) only for his cluttered video game adaptation Legend of the Ancient Sword (2018) to prove almost as financially catastrophic as his infamous pirate adventure Cutthroat Island (1995). In the case of Bodies at Rest, he is working from a screenplay by David Lesser that was intended for a US production only to be modified for the thriving Chinese market by Wu Mengzhang and Chang You.
The result is far from perfect. There are lapses in logic, a daft fantasy action sequence that was presumably included to provide more enticing footage for the trailer, and a subpar climactic CGI explosion (even ‘90s throwbacks have to play safe in the fire department). For the most part, though, it’s a brisk assemblage of genre tropes that enables Harlin to orchestrate a run of nifty set pieces that see Nick and Lynn using everything at their disposal to fight back against their increasingly viscous foes. Anthony Pun’s sleek if somewhat anonymous cool blue cinematography keeps things visible at low-light level, helping to maintain spatial coherence in the more rapidly cut chase sequences. It further benefits from a set of able performances. Cheung, rocking glasses and a grey cardigan, taps into an anguished backstory (Nick’s wife was killed in a jewelry store robbery) to create an engaging everyman hero with a flair for problem solving, even if he is a bit stilted when delivering quips presumably retained from the English language draft (“This isn’t a bank, you know?” he remarks when first encountering the bad guys). Yang’s underwritten role is, to some extent, a genre cliché (the siege occurs on Lynn’s last night in Hong Kong before transferring back to Beijing) but she gets ample millage out of Lynn’s willingness to try absolutely anything that might just save the day.
For all the references to Hollywood action cinema and Hong Kong shoot-‘em-ups (John Woo gets a shout-out), this is obviously a product for Mainland China where such films are still a viable theatrical, rather than streaming, proposition. This is most evident in the tame approach to violence. Bodies at Rest has a fair kill count considering its relative paucity of characters with an impressively staged ‘hall of mirrors’ shoot-out in a computer room, but hardcore action fans may consider Harlin’s tendency to cut away at points of impact and reliance on reaction shots to be a compromise on the part of a director whose career highs were far from squeamish. Still, there’s a darkly humorous streak indicated by the sardonic title (cadavers are penetrated and thrown about, the protagonists hardly get a breather) while a few supporting characters that one may expect to be spared for the sake of comic relief or plot convenience are abruptly dispatched.
with any film that riffs on the classics of it genre, Bodies at Rest never stands a chance of being mistaken for one, but
the slick professionalism on display throughout ensures that is thoroughly
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).