Discounting the derided Cutthroat Island (1995), Renny Harlin directed some of the better Hollywood blockbusters of the 90’s. The likes of Cliffhanger (1993), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1997) and Deep Blue Sea (1999) are some of the best examples of his work.
Come the 2000’s there was a serious decline in quality, with such movies as Driven (2000), Mindhunters (2004) and The Covenant (2006) opening to poor reviews and underperforming at the box office.
After directing the poorly received Legend of Hercules (2014), Harlin decided to see if he would have more luck further afield, with him choosing to relocate to China. His first Chinese production was the Jackie Chan vehicle Skiptrace (2016).
Although Skiptrace did not open to the best of reviews, I personally thought it to be a fun action adventure that was not only a major improvement over Jackie Chan’s last feature Dragon Blade (2015) but proved that Harlin could still bring the goods when required.
Unfortunately Harlin followed this up with Legend of the Ancient Sword (2018), an extremely lacklustre fantasy actioner that was on par with the poorest of his Hollywood output.
This brings us to Bodies At Rest, a small scale action thriller that is thankfully a major improvement on his previous feature and like Skiptrace is able to recapture some of the magic of Harlin’s early days.
The film opens in a morgue on Christmas Eve, with only a handful of staff on duty. These include forensic pathologist Nick Chan (Nick Cheung) and his intern Lynn Qiao (Yang Zi) who are thinking it is going to be a quiet night.
It is not long until their night is interrupted by three masked gunmen, nicknamed Santa (Richie Jen), Elf (Carlos Chan) and Rudolph (Feng Jiayi). They are there to retrieve a bullet from a body that was recently brought in. The said bullet incriminates all three of them in a murder and they are willing to do whatever it takes to stop that from happening.
From here the movie becomes a low scale take on Die Hard (1988), all taking place in the claustrophobic confines of the morgue while Cheung tries to outsmart the gunmen. Harlin of course has experience of this type of tale, having previously directed Die Hard 2 (1990), even managing to include some subtle nods to the action classic.
Harlin does not waste much time getting to the main plot, with our lead characters true motives only being revealed as the film progresses, albeit in some slightly clunky flashbacks.
Unfortunately the film ultimately runs out of steam before it reaches the finale, weighed down by too many twists and turns that stretch credibility. Further stretching credibility is the inclusion of a poorly thought out dream sequence that only helps take you out of the action rather than being the shock that was clearly intended.
A number of the films drawbacks could probably be blamed on David Lesser’s contrived script, although it is unclear what screenwriters Wu Meng-Zhang and Chang You re-wrote in order to repurpose it for the Hong Kong/China market.
Still, with Harlin keeping things moving at a brisk pace you do not have much time to dwell on the ridiculousness of the script with Harlin bringing the whole film in under 90 minutes.
Performance wise, it is no surprise that Nick Cheung is great in the lead role. While his part does not stretch him as an actor, Cheung is instantly relatable as the everyman hero. Unlike John McClane, Cheung’s pathologist seems out of his depth, with him having to use his smarts instead of brawn when facing off against the gunmen.
Cheung has kept himself busy this year, what with Bodies At Rest, Integrity (2019), Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy (2019) and the recently released Guilt By Design (2019).
Yang Zi makes an impression as Cheung’s intern Lynn Qiao, with her proving to be just as tough as him. It makes a refreshing change that she is not the typical damsel in distress. Surprisingly this is one aspect the script does well. As well as Bodies At Rest, Zi can be seen in this year’s The Bravest (2019).
It is nice to see Richie Jen once again play the villain. I always feel that he excels in these types of role more so than when he is playing the hero. His work on the likes of Breaking News (2004), where he again went up against Nick Cheung and the more recent Trivisa (2016) show the actor at his best. His performance here is not perhaps in the same league but Jen still manages to impress.
The main area most are interested in when it comes to a Renny Harlin film is how good is the action. It helps that Harlin has action choreographer Sam Wong at hand, with Wong crafting some brutal fight scenes that are the clear high points of the movie.
The best of these is a tense stand-off between the gunmen and two investigating beat cops that eventually descends into chaos, with everyone fighting for their life.
Wong may not be as well known an action choreographer as the likes of Yuen Woo Ping or Yuen Kwai, but his work here is extremely well done and one of the main selling points of the film.
Like many low budget actioners some of the action is let down by sub par CGI. This is mostly during the fire filled finale where it’s clear that Harlin wanted to end the film on a large scale but clearly did not have the budget to do so.
Other than the poor CGI, Harlin and his cinematographer Anthony Pun do a great job in capturing the action, creating some suitably slick visuals. This is not a surprise as Pun has done excellent work in the past, especially his work with director Benny Chan.
New Police Story (2004), Divergence (2005) and The White Storm (2013) are just some examples of the fine work that has come from their collaboration. More recently Pun turned his hand to directing, helming the underrated Extraordinary Mission (2017) alongside co-director Alan Mak.
Bodies At Rest will never be remembered as an action classic like some of Harlin’s best work but it makes for an entertaining and quick moving action thriller which does enough right to make it at least worthwhile.
It would seem that Renny Harlin is moving away from China for his next feature, heist movie The Misfits (2020). Filmed partly in Abu Dhabi, it will find him teaming up with Pierce Brosnan. It will be interesting to see if this will be a true return to form for the director. Even if not, it can not be worse than Cutthroat Island. Can it?