The government in general and the FBI in particular take a thrashing from "Golden Gate," a fictional story of injustice set against the McCarthy era by playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), which had its world premiere Wednesday evening at the Sun-dance Film Festival in Park City.
The story itself is just surface material, as Hwang takes his tragic, star-crossed romance in symbolic and mythical directions. But director John Madden ("Ethan Frome") instead turns out a clunky, superficial yarn that feels chopped up, overly theatrical and has performances that occasionally soar way over the top.
The film, set in San Francisco, is narrated by Joan Chen as if it's a Chinese fairy tale. The central character is FBI rookie Kevin Walker (Matt Dillon), who joins the agency in 1952. His first big assignment is to track down communists in Chinatown, but his leads initially fizzle, and several indictments are thrown out of court.
In his zeal to please his superiors and make a name for himself, Walker trumps up charges to prosecute a Chinese suspect named Chen (Tzi Ma), a plan that follows the letter of the law, but which Walker knows is morally reprehensible.
He is successful, of course, which leads to an innocent man going to prison and Walker becoming an agency hero. Walker also suffers a loss, however, as his girlfriend (Teri Polo), who has regularly lectured him on the subject of law vs. justice, is appalled by his actions and bolts from his life.
The movie then shifts 10 years forward, as Chen is released from prison and Walker is ordered to tail him. As he does this, Walker sees that Chen's life has become a shambles. Walker also finds himself enchanted by Chen's young daughter Marilyn (Joan Chen, as a very unconvincing 16-year-old).
Eventually, Walker comes up with a plan to help them, but it is too late and Chen commits suicide.
Plagued with guilt, Walker goes to the funeral and later strikes up a friendship with Marilyn, which naturally blossoms into love. Walker lies to Marilyn about who he is, and when she discovers the truth, she swears revenge and vows to clear her father's name.
Another six years pass (it's 1968 now), Marilyn is in law school and associated with dissidents, so Walker is again assigned to watch her and ultimately to help the FBI gather evidence on her and the leader of the group (Stan Egi).
At a crossroads, Walker must decide whether to follow orders or reveal that Marilyn's father was falsely prosecuted.
Funded by "American Playhouse," and scheduled to be shown later this year on PBS, "Golden Gate" has the germ of something important to say and could certainly be more entertaining. But the superficial presentation, as well as performances that become caricatures (especially Egi), undermine the film's better intentions.
Dillon and Chen try gamely, and as Dillon's former partner and future boss, Bruno Kirby gets a few chuckles playing a bombastic, God-and-country racist. (He also has the film's best line, as he takes a phone call and then mutters, "Damn, I hate due process.")
"Golden Gate" is rated R for profanity, vulgarity, violence, sex, nudity and marijuana smoking.