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John Madden's Golden Gate, a romantic soap opera badly disguised as a fable of McCarthyite bigotry and good-guy guilt, features Matt Dillon as an eager-beaver FBI agent assigned to root out supposed communists in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1952, and Joan Chen as the beautiful daughter of an innocent Chinese laundryman the FBI man eventually hounds to suicide.

Laughably, they fall in love. But when the grieving daughter discovers who Dillon really is, she transforms herself into a Chinese warrior spirit and avenges the injustice done to her father. Dillon beats himself up about the witch-hunt thing for sixteen years or so, gives up a couple of secret files to make amends, then leaps off the bridge himself. None too soon, either.

This is the bluntest kind of trickery--saccharine junk that pretends to social importance. You wonder what got into the head of David Henry Hwang (the playwright of M. Butterfly) to provoke this movie-of-the-week script: The ludicrous melodrama feels so stiff and uncomfortable and straight-faced that it seems always on the verge of turning into a Saturday Night Live sketch. Unfortunately, it never does. These moviemakers mean this thing to be just as earnest and lame and manipulative as it comes off.

Chen, late of The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks, makes the best of a bad dramatic situation. But Dillon, an uneven actor who does his most effective work in edgy, sneery wise-guy parts (like the demolished junkie of Drugstore Cowboy), probably had no business playing the cocky G-man Kevin Walker. Dillon is a half-dazed blockhead here, his blue suit looks wrong, and his soulful gazes into the distance don't wash. Hwang has pasted on some weak rhetoric about the crucial difference between justice and law, but the whole notion of J. Edgar Hoover's mean little lackey suddenly turning into the conscience of a nation is about as convincing as those white FBI men propped up as the soul of the civil-rights movement in Mississippi Burning.

Movies this bad usually have bad villains, too, and Bruno Kirby fits the bill. He's a nasty little Hoover clone who imagines a Red behind every pair of chopsticks and a global conspiracy behind every student radical shooting his mouth off. You want to stuff an ether rag into this caricature's mouth and leave it at that.

Meanwhile, Golden Gate is busy trivializing important civil-liberties issues as it serves up another tepid tale of "impossible love." By the time the credits roll there isn't a wet eye in the house.

 
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