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Traces of Red/China Moon
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by Jack Sommersby

"Negligible Noirs"
2 stars

Neither was anything near a box-office success, and it's easy to see why.

The ludicrous Palm Beach, Florida-set whodunit Traces of Red certainly tries its utmost at scoring as a neo-noir as a throwback to the film-noirs of the 1940s and 50s, which were largely comprised of femme fatales and vulnerable male heroes caught up in complex crimes with stylish lighting and dark subtexts accentuating the proceedings, but it's too amorphous and nonsensical for its own good, and comes off as quite the limp wrist. The acceptable actor James Belushi stars as Jack Dobson, a homicide detective in this posh community, and the movie opens with an overhead shot of his bullet-ridden corpse outside a dilapidated house with Belushi narrating his fate and proceeds to give us the lowdown on how he got himself here, which, of course, is a blatant steal from Billy Wilder's much-praised 1950 Sunset Blvd, a bona-fide classic of this particular sub-genre. Jack is revealed to be quite the stud of a bachelor around town: he's a regular-though-secret bedmate of the city's wealthiest heiress, one Ellen Schofield (Lorraine Bracco from Goodfellas) whose elderly husband treated her strictly as a trophy wife but left her a multi-million-dollar fortune at the time of his death, though why she needs to keep her relationship secret with the equally-single Jack is anyone's guess. The plot kicks in when a young and pretty waitress employed at a high-dollar restaurant frequented by Jack and his wealthy brother Michael (William Russ), who's presently campaigning for a run at state Senate, is found murdered the very next morning after Jack had successfully bagged her, with her corpse marked with the very same ruby-red-colored lipstick Jack's been receiving at the station house on letters containing obscure poems threatening his life. When soon thereafter another female corpse related to Jack turns up (his former first-grade teacher, no less) he becomes a viable chief suspect, and Jack and his loyal police partner Steve (Tony Goldwyn from Ghost) set out to get at the truth. This is only the second screenplay on the part of Jim Piddock, whose debut was the execrable 1985 Death Wish clone Stand Alone, and repeats himself here with mediocre dialogue and haphazard story construction (there's not so much as a whisper of genuine wit to be found); and the inadequate director Andy Wolf, making his theatrical debut after three short-lived stints in television, fails at giving the movie compression, tension or atmosphere. Traces of Red is overlong by at least twenty minutes and stumbles forth with the very minimum of immediacy that gives the audience far too much to spot all the plot holes. Both Belushi and Bracco are game but classically miscast, with him pallid and her overly mannered - neither possesses any semblances of sex appeal, and their scenes together have all the eroticism of a Girl Scout cookie sale. Overall, it's not necessarily a bad production, but it's undistinguished and downright rudimentary most of the time. The only real standout is the excellent Michelle Cassidy as that doomed waitress - in just two scenes she displays variety and verify, and makes us wish she had a whole lot more screen time because, unlike the two flailing stars, she really registers and leaves us intrigued for more.

A little bit better is another stab at noir, China Moon, yet another crime tale set in Florida, with the always-welcome Ed Harris headlining a first-rate cast as another homicide detective by the name of Kyle Bodine, who's been saddled with breaking in his wet-behind-the-ears first-time plainclothes officer Lamar Dickey (that unpredictable actor Benicio Del Toro) on the basics of investigating technique - Kyle claims he's not looking at crime scenes with the acute eye that he should, that he needs to notice every detail he can because it's those minuscule ones that can potentially break a case wide open. They regularly go out for beers after their shift is over, and on one particular evening at a dockside bar Kyle is entranced by the vivacious Rachel Munro (played by Madeleine Stowe) sitting alone in a slinky white satin dress: he approaches her and is given mixed signals after a semi-flirtatious back-and-forth; he subsequently gets her name from a credit-card receipt and proceeds to look her up, only to discover she's the unhappy wife of the town's leading banker, the wealthy Rupert (Charles Dance) who's having an affair with his gorgeous secretary and is a short-tempered domestic abuser. Naturally, Rachel wants to get rid of him and starts manipulating Kyle with both sex and sorrow to make herself a vulnerable victim, and after she winds up shooting Rupert dead after he attacks her Kyle gets the call, and after this the story lets us know that not all is as it seems. Director John Bailey is a noted cinematographer, and it's certainly no coincidence he evocatively lighted 1981's overrated Body Heat, which strove so mightily to be recognized as the very ultimate in noir that it was absolutely smothered head to toe in lurid pretentiousness - it was a textbook example of manner over matter. And the central problem with "China Moon" is that if you've seen Body Heat you've basically seen this film because it has similar twists and turns yet doesn't have the kinetic energy to deftly glide over them - Bailey, god bless him, doesn't try to sensationalize things, but he's his own worst enemy because he's given way too much respect for material that, despite some occasionally good dialogue and interesting location shooting, just isn't worthy of it. The grand finale is unconvincing to say the very least, and you aren't given the pleasure of being able to look back at the pieces and see how they intricately fit. Still, Ed Harris's multi-faceted performance winds up counting for a lot. Kyle is your basic Everyman, outstanding at his job yet not an individual who necessarily stands out during his off-hours. Harris manages to suggest a good-hearted individual perfectly content with being average, that he doesn't aspire to be grandiose - he can accept his just-average housing on his meager salary knowing he's at the ready-line to be dispatched to investigate murders on a moment's notice; this isn't the kind of mature, no-frills, down-to-earth characterization you see much of anymore, and it's entirely welcoming like a fresh shot of undiluted oxygen. China Moon may not be recommendable, but the ever-dependable Harris infuses it with an admirable dose of touching humanity that manages to render the proceedings something of an honorable nice-try.

A double-feature not worth catching.

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originally posted: 12/18/20 14:20:34
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  11-Nov-1992 (R)



Directed by
  Andy Wolk
  John Bailey

Written by
  Jim Piddock
  Roy Carlson

  James Belushi
  Lorraine Bracco
  Ed Harris
  Madeleine Stowe

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