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Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by William Friedkin.

Starring David Caruso,
Linda Fiorentino, Chazz Palminteri
and Richard Crenna.

At the height of his critical and commercial success, director William Friedkin crafted films of such high caliber as The French Connection (1971), winning well-deserved Oscars for Best Picture and Direction. Since then, despite the commercial success of The Exorcist (1973), Friedkin’s career has been rather a bad case of hit-and-miss. Sorcerer (1977), is really an inferior adaptation of the Henri-Georges Cluzot classic, The Wages of Fear, although Friedkin does, at certain and all-too-infrequent moments in the film, manage to capture the essence of despair so prevalent in the original. The controversial Cruising (1980) managed only to offend gays because it was perceived to be homophobic in its depiction of gay life. About Deal of the Century (1986) the less said the better. Nevertheless, given his earlier promise as a filmmaker, there is always hope that Friedkin just might be able to bring the right elements to coalesce just so, and, in so doing, to extend (or perhaps reextend) his filmic canon.

These musings are especially relevant in considering Friedkin’s latest cinematic offering. Jade is a significant step in the restoration of Friedkin’s directorial reputation, but it doesn’t go far enough. This is a shame because the elements are promising: San Francisco assistant DA David Corelli (Caruso), pursuing the murder of a wealthy art patron with kinky sexual proclivities, finds that the trail of evidence leads him to none other than his one-time love, Trina Gavin (Fiorentino), a psychologist who is a noted expert on violence in the workplace. She and her husband, Matt (Palminteri), are the ultimate power couple: lavish home, positions on corporate boards, etc. But, alas, all is not as it seems: not only is Matt an adulterer, but it seems as if Mrs. Gavin has been leading a secret life as a thoroughly uninhibited lady-for-hire named Jade, catering to those above-mentioned proclivities among the well-to-do and politically connected in the state of California. It is hardly surprising that even the governor (Crenna) has a role to play here (having undergone unofficial "therapy sessions" in the beach house of the art patron). When the art patron is found in his home, spread-eagled against a bedroom wall and slashed by what is some sort of ancient Chinese ax, a certain artifact found at the murder site seems to link Jade to the killing (the method of death, with some variation, also links Jade to Basic Instinct and their scriptwriter-in-common, Joe Eszterhas, but more on this later). Mrs. Gavin doesn’t have much of an alibi, either, having been the last individual to see the art patron alive less than four hours before his death. As his investigation deepens, Corelli has to contend both with Mr. Gavin’s jealous suspicions about his feelings for Mrs. Gavin, and with the fact that the witnesses to Mrs. Gavin’s part-time practice are losing their lives in rather gruesome ways no sooner than Corelli has ferreted them out. Obviously there’s a mole in the DA’s office and Mrs. Gavin might be next on the list -- or is she the killer?

Whatever problems Jade has, they don’t stem from Friedkin’s visual style; it has all of the hallmarks of a director who is sure of himself. There are elegant tracking shots that meander with a leisurely, yet self-confident, pace over a beautifully-composed and lit mise-en-scene, as if Friedkin is declaring that he has nothing at all to hide -- or prove. All of this camera movement may seem quasi-Hitchcockian, but, in the earlier sequences, it works well because it and the narrative work in tandem; only when the narrative falls apart does the movement acquire a moldy air of pretentiousness. The chase sequences, as one might expect, fulfill the expected quota for excitement with their rapid-fire editing, even if, in their execution and inspiration, they owe less of a debt to The French Connection than to Bullitt. But Jade literally takes forever for all of the necessary narrative pieces to fall into place; not until the film is nearly two-thirds finished does the audience have the above-mentioned plot synopsis at hand. The aim in making a crime film like Jade is to provide the audience with just enough information, such as character motivation and visual and verbal cues and symbols, as fast as possible, so that, armed with this information, its members can relax and participate in constructing the solution. This is not what happens in Jade. Instead of providing the audience with vital information, the narrative is too busy wallowing around in sensationalism, as if the specter of corruption in high places is sufficient by itself to keep everyone in thrall for an hour of screen time before a hastily-constructed and unconvincing dénouement can lumber into place. By the time this happens, the film has lost its momentum, and what was initially an engrossing crime thriller is one no longer.

It is no little exaggeration to state that screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is becoming, like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, a touch, shall we say, overexposed. Inarguably, he is one of the best paid and most influential screenwriters in Hollywood, able to command sums of two million dollars and two-and-a-half million per two-page treatment (for Showgirls and Jade, respectively). Not a bad rate of return for less than a couple of hours of work -- for Eszterhas. Unfortunately, what Paramount and Friedkin got, in the case of Jade, was less high-concept than high-blown. The difficulties with Jade don’t necessarily stem from the fact that it shares too many common elements with Basic Instinct for comfort; common elements in genre filmmaking are never a problem, as anyone who has watched tumbleweed roll across a screen for the umpteenth time in a Western will avow. After all, the narrative of Basic Instinct was never anything but a series of clichés constructed upon a motif which carried considerable weight in artistic circles during the late nineteenth century: "la belle dame sans merci," the beautiful woman without mercy, who symbolizes both punishment for sexual impulses run rampant and the tantalizing promise of satisfying those impulses. But Eszterhas’ trick (and Verhoeven’s, as well) was to reactivate mass interest in this motif at a time when the sexual revolution and its promise of guilt-free and obligation-free sex was being put to the sword by the specter of AIDS spreading throughout the general (heterosexual) population. The motif, although shopworn, was novel, because it had been out of vogue for some time; now the shock value has worn off and the premise no longer has enough parts to have any hope of adding up to a sum, assuming it could have ever done so. Moreover, Jade doesn’t fully develop what few motifs it has to any useful effect. The use of Chinese artifacts in the film becomes little more than a weak justification for spending a considerable amount of time in Chinatown, rather than for developing valuable insight into the motivations of Jade herself. By no means is Eszterhas an incompetent screenwriter, but he has become more than a little complacent.

As might be expected from the above assessment, the characterization in Jade is particularly weak, and the performances suffer as a result. Apart from an interrogation scene where the audience can glimpse the emotional potential of his character, David Caruso spends much of his time with a hangdog look on his face. Chazz Palminteri and Richard Crenna are given very little to do other than to snarl menacingly when necessary. The real crime in Jade, however, is the script’s denigration of the wonderful Linda Fiorentino. Those who remember her exquisitely sadistic performance in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (in which, as a quintessential "belle dame sans merci," she made Bill Pullman and Peter Berg suffer death from a thousand cuts in every sense of the expression) will recognize some of the same coolly-controlled steeliness in the first half of her performance in Jade. Unfortunately, this stance doesn’t last and she descends from the heights of glorious "noir" anti-heroine to something all-too-familiar -- much like the progress of the film itself. Under the circumstances, the introduction of the sexually-uninhibited Jade becomes nothing more than a red herring (the uncharitable, picking up on the sexual metaphor, might choose to call this refusal to follow through with this narrative promise nothing more than a tease). Unbelievably, Jade calls attention to this misuse of Fiorentino. In the closing moments of the film, Matt Gavin asks his wife rather sardonically to introduce him to Jade when they next make love. Let’s hope that he has better luck than the audience had in getting to know her.

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