Stone Cold

Jade masquerades as an erotic thriller

Jade is a beautifully composed, well-acted, very bad movie -- a "sensual mystery," as the producers proclaim, that makes no sense in its lavish dumbness. Both director William Friedkin and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas figure prominently in the iconography of American pop culture, but while Friedkin makes at least some effort to give life to this twisted, misbegotten project, Eszterhas' screenplay is an embarrassing splatter of overcooked, underseasoned machismo -- bonehead lines one after the other, soggy wisecracks, bad swearing, desperate attempts at a hip vernacular. It's as if he were trying to write as foolish a script as possible just to see if he could get it made on the strength of his name alone. If that's the test, then he goes to the head of the class (and collects millions of dollars). As for the moviegoing public: Beware.

Of all the movie's many horrifically silly moments, none is more ludicrous than a car chase through the streets of San Francisco that goes on and on, as if Mel Brooks were directing it. The two cars (built Ford-tough) sail more and more wildly down steep streets, shocks groaning and tires squealing, while their drivers wrestle their steering wheels and manage -- through the miracle of modern cinematography -- not to crash into the cars, school buses, and moving vans (although, mysteriously, no DPT vehicles) that periodically bumble into their path. If only all San Franciscans could drive like that!

The chase is supposed to be breathtaking, but I was left hooting at the idiot boyishness of it (and wondering how horrendously you have to drive before the SFPD will at least try to stop you). This is the kind of scene that 12-year-olds would put in a film if some visionary studio executive gave their sixth-grade class tens of millions of dollars and said, "Be creative, boys!"

The sixth-graders would put in all the off-key "fuck you"s, too, and the leering sexual innuendoes. Is the secret of Eszterhas' success that he's so entirely predictable -- the Rush Limbaugh of screenwriters? Jade is a cryptically fancy name for a movie that might be more accurately titled Testosterone, or, more simply, Balls. It's basically a circle jerk with a lot of crumpled bumpers.

The movie opens at the city's Black and White Ball, where Deputy District Attorney David Corelli (David Caruso, looking noticeably craggier than in his NYPD Blue days) receives word that a prominent socialite has been brutally murdered. An investigation of the deceased's Pacific Heights palace turns up, among other things, photographs of the governor of California (a jovially diabolical Richard Crenna) humping an underage tart.

Further inquiry discloses that it isn't just the governor who's been tomcatting, but a wealth of powerful, well-placed men. And one of the romping women turns out to be classy, trashy Trina (Linda Fiorentino), who was Corelli's college lover before she married Matt Gavin (Chazz Palminteri) and became a famous psychiatrist. Her antics (including her favorite: taking it up the ass) are surreptitiously captured on video.

The movie never settles on a motive for Trina's behavior. Certainly she's not starved for sex at home; when she and Matt are alone in their Hillsborough castle, they're almost always screwing each other's brains out. (And he's got things going on the side, too; in one typically crude scene, he takes a business call, then steps out on the terrace of his high-rise office and, as the Transamerica Pyramid glows in the twilight, gets a blow job from a nameless blond woman.)

Trina's hollowness is vexing only because she stands at the movie's center. The story cannot make sense if she doesn't. And she doesn't. She's not a character at all, just a figure portrayed by an actress who struggles to breathe life into the lifeless lines she's given. Like everyone else in Jade, Trina is a talking Barbie doll whom the filmmakers move about as if she were a chess piece.

At least she's a woman. Eszterhas seems to be afraid enough of the opposite sex not to risk seeming too stupid in rendering them; his women are preposterously slutty, but their language and behavior are muted just enough to keep them from becoming unbearably noxious -- or laughable.

The men are another matter -- a pack of dim-bulb chest-thumpers for whom "sex, power, and money," as Matt tells David, are all that matters. The only scene the film lacks is a fart-sparking competition; every line, every scene and interaction among the male characters is lifted straight from the eighth-grade boys locker room, that stench-choked den of petty devilry.

The styles of Friedkin and Eszterhas fail to mesh in a curious way. (Maybe this is good news for Friedkin.) Eszterhas is a would-be Hemingway waiting for puberty, but Friedkin is a visual composer of some style and complexity. He likes to move the camera around as if it were his own pair of eyes, and he evokes the unsettling sense that whatever the camera happens not to be looking at at a given moment is the most dangerous thing in the room. He manages to create some primal tension without the least bit of help from the script.

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