The collision of culture, politics and mysticism imbues Goldwyn’s noirish “Golden Gate.” Though the film doesn’t stint on ambition, its ultimate conclusion comes up short and an unsatisfactory ending will work against its commercial acceptance.
Definitely an upscale venture, it touches upon a number of distinct interest groups without truly tapping into a particular viewing segment. Finally, its arthouse sensibility will prevail theatrically with a potentially greater crowd in ancillary exposure. That still falls far short of coming anywhere near the mainstream.
The core of the tale is pretty straightforward. Kevin Walker (Matt Dillon) is a go-getter fresh out of law school and an eager recruit with the San Francisco office of the FBI. Thrust into the hysteria of communist witch hunting in 1952, he’s assigned to ferret out subversives among the city’s Chinese community.
While the Hoover honchos may be keen, no substantive evidence can be found implicating groups or individuals. Though essentially a decent type, Kevin nonetheless succumbs to head office pressure to get indictments. He devises a case in which money sent to relatives via Hong Kong lands a trio in jail.
What fascinates scripter David Henry Hwang is how this injustice impacts someone who acutely understands the difference between justice and the law. In fact, while his cronies suffer no outward loss, Kevin quickly finds his girlfriend departing and his career in a state of virtual stasis.
The film begins to buckle when the action is spread out over two decades. The lapses in time (its three acts occur in 1952, 1962 and 1968) result in rough transitions, as well as inconsistencies in character aging and changes in fashion.
Ten years after the fact, Song (Tzi Ma) is released but emotionally ill-prepared for freedom. Kevin is assigned to track him but gets too close. Song jumps from the title structure with the departing curse that Kevin become a Chinaman. Rather, he becomes the protector and, later, lover of the blameless laundry man’s daughter Marilyn (Joan Chen).
The yarn is rife with deceit, betrayal and vindication. It is a grand tragedy in which no amount of repentance can erase a single, if definitive, lapse of judgment. The consequences nonetheless seem too extreme.
Once again, Dillon provides the bedrock to the piece in a wonderfully conceived and modulated performance. He is eminently engaging and far superior to the meandering material. The supporting cast is also first-rate, as are technical credits, particularly the lighting and camera work of Bobby Bukowski.
But the artistry can surmount only so much of what’s lacking in the script’s failure to focus and consolidate. There is no gold ring for “Golden Gate,” only the promise of an intriguing premise unfulfilled.