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Bodies at Rest
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by Jay Seaver

"Just let Renny Harlin make his Renny Harlin movie, China!"
3 stars

As near as I can tell from its online footprint and the credits, "Bodies at Rest" started as an English-language script, got picked up by a Chinese company, was rewritten to be set in Hong Kong but shot in Beijing (in Mandarin), directed by a Finn, after which point it seems to have sat on the server for a year before being finally getting what release it did, dubbed into Cantonese for at least its North American release. That it is kind of a mess is unsurprising; that it's still a fairly acceptable little thriller is a sort of testament to everyone knowing what they're doing.

It's Christmas Eve 2017, and the radio is warning of torrential rains in Hong Kong, so everybody should just stay home, buckle down, maybe have some eggnog. At the city morgue, forensic examiner Nick Chan (Nick Cheung Ka-Fai) is midway through his shift, aided by intern Lynn Qiao (Yang Zi), with "Uncle King" (Ma Shuliang) covering the front desk. That weather advisory and skeleton crew makes it easy pickings for masked intruders "Santa" (Richie Jen Hsien-Chi), "Rudolph" (Feng Jiayi), and "Elf" (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok), who want the bullet lodged in gunshot victim Ankie Cheng (Clara Lee). In and out in an hour, they think, not counting on how Nick is fairly driven to now have another murder sit unsolved like that of his wife.

As hooks for Die Hard-style sieges go, that's actually pretty clever, and if you're going to do that, you might as well get the guy who directed Die Hard 2 and has, of late, been plying his trade for Chinese studios with more screens to fill than they have journeyman directors to churn things out. It seems like a great fit, especially when you consider that Harlin also has roots in horror and has seldom been afraid to put more blood and guts into his action/adventure flicks than some of his contemporaries. If this were a Hong Kong thriller, he'd probably be free to go to town, but in a Chinese co-production, he's working with one hand tied behind his back. So he shoots around anything that might show too much of a corpse being examined or cut up, has one of the best kills of the film neutered, and is so cautious as other characters get maimed that I can't say as to whether a pretty specifically called out piece of mayhem in the last act wound up happening or not. Even as someone who doesn't particularly like that much gore in my movies, I'm not sure why you hire Harlin to shoot this script and then basically limit him to headshots that don't bleed until the victim is lying face-down on the floor.

Not that it's a great script; for all of its potentially neat hooks and twists, it struggles to extend itself to ninety minutes both by having the characters be exceptionally stupid (badly enough and often enough that by the time someone recognizes the situation and acts sensibly, that almost seems like the writers going too far) and walking back one of the bigger bits of action as just Chan playing a scenario out in his head. It's probably not even necessary to go into how, even if Santa and his crew don't get away with the bullet, it's a chain of custody nightmare, because it's not like they won't be supplied some other sort of comeuppance, or how "Merry Christmas" becomes a potentially lethal drinking game by halfway through the movie. And while it's not the writers' fault that the storm they invent to keep the place isolated never much materializes or becomes a factor, it's another thing that makes the movie feel kind of half-baked.

Fortunately, the cast and crew are willing to do the best they can with what they've got, and that effort shows. Nick Cheung connects his namesake character's eccentricity and MacGyver-level ability to improvise via an underlying sense of obsession without making him gruff or difficult, while Richie Jen somehow manages to make his villain businesslike and impatient with the dolts he's working with despite working behind a Santa mask for much of the movie. Feng Jiayi and Carlos Chan go just big enough to make Rudolph and Elf distinct, and Ma Shuliang gets to be amiably sincere as the fat comic relief guy. Still, nobody gives the movie the same charge Yang Zi does, going from sweet and scared to pugnacious in fairly short order, happily throwing herself into whatever Harlin asks for, exactly what the movie needs at any moment.

And while Harlin may not be able to give this film the full level of Renny Harlin it deserves, he still attacks it like a pro, making good use of the specific spaces he's got to work with and getting the audience into the more creative bits of action. The script itself may be padded, but individual scenes seldom are, so it moves at a nice clip and the "hey, look at this, it's important" moments aren't overdone. They may be boxed in on a number of sides, but Harlin and his cast and crew do all they can to make a good B-movie in the space they've got, and succeed just enough to at least give a look when it hits streaming.

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originally posted: 08/05/19 03:15:36
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Directed by
  Renny Harlin

Written by
  David Lesser

  Nick Cheung
  Richie Jen
  Zi Yang

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