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Picture this: It’s a stormy Christmas Eve, and a band of nefarious types breaks into a public facility of some sort, intent on circumventing the law and getting one of their gang off the hook for a recently committed crime before a trial even starts. Great, it’s another viewing of Die Hard 2, right? Wrong. But it is the latest actioner by Finnish director Renny Harlin, now three films into his Chinese directing career (Skiptrace, Legend of the Ancient Sword), this time around on Bodies at Rest, a Hong Kong co-production opening the 43rd edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Whatever you may think of his movies, Harlin knows his way around a set piece (best demonstrated in the underappreciated The Long Kiss Goodnight), and here he engineers shattering glass beautifully and cleverly re-imagines the whole “good guy hiding in the morgue drawers” trope. He also injects the kind of polished, OTT energy Hong Kong was once the standard bearer for in unchallenging, purely entertaining crime thrillers, and has recently lost to China (Dante Lam, Gordon Chan) and its fat, tempting budgets. Despite its flaws, Bodies grabs you quickly and never really lets go for the entirety of its lean, efficient 90 minutes. Distributor Media Asia is toying with a summer release, which is probably the wise choice. Bodies at Rest is perfect summer season fluff, and while it likely won’t set the box office on fire, respectable business at home and in China is relatively certain. Strong production values but not overly cinematic visuals make it a good choice for streaming platforms as well.
As stated, during a torrential black rainstorm on Christmas Eve — this is Hong Kong after all — pathologist and widower Nick Chan (Nick Cheung) is working the graveyard shift with his intern Lynn (Yang Zi) on her last night before heading back to Beijing. Also working at the morgue is the older, jolly security guard, Uncle King (Ma Shuliang). Guess what happens to him? Outside, three thieves are watching the building, and once they’re fairly sure everyone has left, they walk in the front door and demand King take them to the lab. Though the thieves are wearing yuletide themed masks, their archetypical characters are clear: Santa (Richie Jen) is the cool, ruthless leader; Rudolph (Feng Jiayi) is the nervous veteran with no stomach for dead bodies; and Elf (Carlos Chan) is the trigger-happy hothead who got the trio into its current mess. Elf shot a Triad boss’ daughter, and all three are there to get the bullet out of the body. They do, it’s the wrong bullet, and the switcheroo kicks off a game of cat-and-mouse, or more cat and lab rats, that unfolds overnight and plays out like a Cliffs Notes Don Winslow novel. It ends with easily half of Hong Kong’s recently departed being incinerated.
Mix some Die Hard with a little MacGyver (because scientists!) and throw in some Assault on Precinct 13 and you might get an idea as to the simultaneously derivative and yet entirely amusing hodgepodge that is Bodies at Rest. It helps that the cast, and Jen in particular, seem wholly aware of the conventions they’re dealing with, and so have chosen to play it so straight it can’t help but work. That Nick and Lynn aren’t former professional murderers or retired special forces operatives is part of what keeps the film engaging. Nick tries to be a tough guy and fails miserably, and Lynn misjudges what the thieves are going to do time and time again — but she is a lab geek. A tenacious one, but still not a fighter, and Yang is the breakout here for her endless attempts at getting her and Nick out of the situation; she’s all- in and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. They’re both more “everyman” than most thrillers allow for, and because of it the leaps in logic and requisite cliches — the best of which is a janitor wearing headphones so effective he doesn’t hear the ruckus around him — go down easier.
Action director Sam Wong conjures some truly creative kills (nice work with the crane) and Bodies contains the first movie morgue in recent memory to look like it serves a city of 8 million: there are a lot of black bags in the freezer and it makes for some memorable set pieces. Other than a couple of fireballs that aren’t quite up to snuff, tech specs are solid, and through it all Harlin manages to wrangle the script’s more ungainly elements (Nick’s backstory and his connection to Santa is underwritten) into a no-fuss diversion. It’s no Cliffhanger, but for fans of the genre it will do fine.
Production company: Media Asia, Wanda Media
Cast: Nick Cheung, Richie Jen, Yang Zi, Feng Jiayi, Carlos Chan, Ma Shuliang, Jin Au-Yeung, Kwok Chun On, Ron Ng, Sonija Kwok, Ming Peng, Clara Lee
Director: Renny Harlin
Screenwriter: Wu Mengzhang, Chang You
Producer: Cary Cheng
Executive producer: Chu Yam Chi, Shirley Lau
Director of photography: Anthony Pun Yiu Ming
Production designer: Cheung Ying Wa
Costume designer: Miriam C., Yee Chung Man
Editor: Cheung Ka Fai
Music: Anthony Chue
World sales: Media Asia
No rating, 94minutes
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