I’d like to believe a movie can only get as bad as Golden Gate on purpose. Sometimes, a bad film is simply a result of amateurish ineptitude or wild miscalculations. This is a different case. It boasts a screenplay by playwright David Henry Hwang, who (deservedly) won every available award for M. Butterfly. Director John Madden went on to make the overrated but undeniably well-made Shakespeare in Love. Matt Dillon has gone on to be a quietly underrated actor, turning in great performances in even the most unchallenging films (he’s the only reason to watch One Night at McCool’s). Even composer Elliot Goldenthal—who I bring up because Golden Gate has, quite possibly, the worst score I’ve heard in a motion picture, ever—went on to receive three Oscar nominations and one win for his work on other films. So what the hell happened? I wish I knew.
The film opens in 1952, where Dillon tries his damnedest to convince us he’s a hardboiled FBI agent in possession of a law degree. As Agent Kevin Walker, he’s neither articulate enough nor tough enough to make the character believable. (On the plus side, he does a decent job of “aging” his performance as time passes in the story.) Walker is partnered with the fairly obnoxious Ron Pirelli (Bruno Kirby), on the hunt for filthy commies in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When they fail to find any, their boss presses them for a conviction. Walker comes up with the idea of arresting kindly laundryman Chen Jung Song (Tzi Ma) for the extremely thin reason that he’s organized a way for the Chinese-American population to send money to their families back home. Since “trading” with China is illegal, Song gets ten years in prison.
Ten years later, Chen gets released. Still wracked with guilt, Walker reluctantly takes the assignment to follow Chen in the hopes that he will continue his alleged communist activities. Walker tracks him thoroughly enough to watch the man commit suicide by hurling himself off a lovely scenic overlook near the Golden Gate Bridge. Feeling even guiltier, Walker sidles up to Chen’s attractive daughter, Marilyn (Joan Chen), and convinces her he’s a public defender who got to know Chen in prison. He whispers sweet, made-up-but-presumably-true nothings about Chen in her ear, and they start sleeping together. Naturally, Marilyn dumps him when she finds out the truth. Six years later, Marilyn is fully hippiefied and joined up with an Asian-American radical movement to convince the world either that they aren’t communists, or that communism isn’t so bad. Walker manages to get embroiled in this movement, too.
The chief problem, aside from the tragic miscasting of Dillon, is the script. It’s both a structural mess—free-floating through major events of the ’50s and ’60s without much sense of purpose—and features some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s frustrating that the movie has several opportunities to go into interesting directions, but it fails to capitalize on them. For instance, shortly before Chen’s suicide, Walker pledges to himself that he’ll help him rebuild his life. It’s supposed to be a tragic irony that Chen kills himself immediately thereafter, but I’m more interested in the story of a guilty FBI agent sacrificing his career to help a man he framed than the story the film actually tells. Walker’s romance with Marilyn—a woman less than half his age, and he’s not that old—is kind of creepy, especially since we’ve watched him gaze sympathetically at her as a little girl in 1952. There’s also frustratingly heavy-handed symbolism about the divide between two worlds and how it affects the Chinese-American community but also affects Walker (who’s torn between his own sense of ethics and the FBI’s bloodthirsty commie hunting).
The dialogue is the worst kind of on the nose. For some reason, Madden and Hwang made the decision to utilize something akin to a fantasy sequence for certain moments of the film. All the action stops, spotlights hit the main characters, and they speak to each other as if hypnotized, directly expressing their feelings in the laziest possible way. It’s a baffling choice that makes an already bad film suffer even more. Worse than the dialogue, though, is the grating voiceover narration, which attempts to tell Walker’s story as some sort of pseudo-mystical Chinese fable. He’s always referred to as “the man,” and there are numerous analogies to animals and nature. It would all be very poetic if it weren’t so stupid. It’s also another lazy device: When the film doesn’t slip into fantasy mode, Hwang allows the cheesy narration to explain feelings and motivations instead of working them organically into the characters’ behavior.
Then there’s that godawful score. Imagine someone hired Mike Post to do the soundtrack for a soft-core porn film, but the only instruments they gave him were a sultry saxophone and stereotypical Chinese instruments. That about sums it up. Aside from the stereotypical Asian-ness, it doesn’t match the tone of the film at all, and it does nothing to evoke the period. It sounds like a product of the mid-’80s, not the early ’50s, early ’60s, or late ’60s. And that’s another thing—the film covers 16 years, but the score never makes any changes to reflect the passage of time. Its spooky jazz feel wants to create a ’40s noir vibe, but it’s really better suited to a music video in which Bruce Willis plays the harmonica while dancing on a pool table in a foggy bar.
Golden Gate is the rare film where a group of talented people gathered together to make the worst possible product. Maybe it’s unfair to insinuate they made a bad film intentionally, but it’s hard to imagine these people doing such terrible work on accident.