IT COMES as something of a shock to realise that "social workers" are a relatively recent invention. One finds it difficult to imagine a time when the tabloids did not dwell on battered babies and the "social workers" there to protect them. The supervision of potentially vulnerable, deprived children is clearly a challenging enough responsibility; but imagine a "social worker" responsible for the salvation of mankind. If the imagination falters, The Golden Child (Empire, Leicester Sq, `PG') might prove helpful viewing.
Eddie Murphy plays Chan, a "social worker" in Los Angeles. The normal pattern of his life — organising basketball matches for waifs and strays, appearing on chat shows to appeal for the return of lost children — is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious beauty, Kee Nang (Charlotte Lewis), who tells him that he is The Chosen One.
Chan looks about as interested as we feel, even when Kee Nang goes on to inform him that it is his destiny to save The Golden Child, a perfect child with magical powers born once every thousand years to redeem mankind.
And things aren't looking too hopeful, since The Golden Child has been abducted by Sardo (Charles Dance), a lieutenant of the devil, and will be killed once Sardo obtains a charmed dagger.
Chan would far rather stay in his Inner City than go to Tibet in search of the dagger; but no man can avoid Fate's intentions and they travel to Tibet, fall, inevitably, in love, outwit and destroy Sardo and save mankind.
And the film closes idyllically: Kee Nang and Chan walking hand in hand with The Golden Child, who has abandoned his Tibetan garb and, crisis averted, now looks like a normal American five-year-old (a rather dismal fate, some would argue) complete with jeans, T-shirt and peaked cap.
The only really irritating aspects to this film are that it is shamelessly predictable and a terrible waste of time, money and talent. Predictability sets in immediately with a crass juxtaposition between the "Tibet: Present Day" pre-credit sequence — all shaved, saffronyellow monks murmuring in monasteries — and the credit sequence itself: Eddie Murphy walking around to deafening music amidst a collage of images of Los Angeles.
One can anticipate the tedious dialogue of doubt following Kee Nang's revelations to Chan; and it comes as no surprise to discover that she is an expert in martial arts. The first display of her fighting skills comes when she, routs a group of Hell's Angels. In the combat, a pipe bursts and soaks her. Needless to say, she is wearing a skimpy white blouse at the time. (For the rest of time, when she walks around looking cool, calm and collected, I wondered where I had seen her. At first, I thought she was one of those Singapore Girls, "you're a great way to fly", from the adverisement. Eventually, I realised that she acted in Polanski's fatuous. Pirates; there, too, she was mainly cool, calm and collected: there are, I suppose, worse reputations to have.) The urbane Charles Dance — so fine in The Jewel in the Crown — is her totally wasted. He strides around trying to look menacing; but inexplicably, the costume designer hampers his efforts by forcing him to wear formal nineteenth-century costume, (as though only the diabolic can be dandies) and making him look like an extra from a Sherlock Holmes film.
Indeed, the costume designer had odd ideas generally: Murphy, in a leather pillbox hat, looks like a bell-boy with a leather obsession. The Golden Child himself must qualify as having one of the least taxing parts in the history of cinema: he spends almost the entire film sitting in a cage blinking benevolently looking like a baby Bhudda and saying nothing.
Director Michael Ritchie's principal mistake, however, lies in his comic sense. Murphy, for the first half hour of the film, spends his time laughing at Kee Nang and her story. But because it does all sound so irredeemably absurd, we cannot take her at all seriously either. (One ludicrous scene involved a discussion about a mysterious oracle who resides in the basement of a Chinese restaurant. She sits, chain-smoking behind a gauze curtain, and explains the legend of The Golden Child. Kee Nang reveals that she is really an archivist and an expert in Tibetan lore, that she is over 300 years old and that her mother was raped by a dragon. When we eventually see her, she turns out to have a dragon's tail; understandable, perhaps, in one of such unusual parentage, but it surely makes her life as an archivist rather difficult.) Eddie Murphy is a gifted comedian. He excels in the depiction of social nuance and the comedy of coincidence, as he demonstrated in Trading Places; but is really totally out of place here. He enjoys great prestige and prominence in Hollywood and could surely choose better material. And this is hardly a promising start to Charles Dance's international film career. A waste, a sad waste.
Peter Stanford adds: I am full of admiration for producer Oliver Stone's determination to bring the brutal facts about life in Salvador (Screen on the Green '18') to a wider audience who otherwise wouldn't have spared a thought for that tragic country. However, his blatant use of saintly individuals like Oscar Romero and Jean Donovan as characters in a fictional plot worried me.
For while there is no disputing the veracity of the suffering of the Salvadoran people that he so graphically depicts in this chilling film, his use of the name of Romero with a character whose empty radical slogans bore little witness to the Archbishop's prophetic words was a mistake. Romero's words are well recorded, and would have added to the central thesis of this film much more than the rhetoric that was used in their place.
The story of lay missionary Jean Donovan and three nuns who were raped and murdered by national guardsmen is again drawn into this fictional plot. Their names were not used, but every detail of the story was accurate. Either the director should use the exact events and names, or he should change the names and the nature of the events, without losing their essential brutality.
Jean O'Donovan and Oscar Romero are dead. US Ambassador Robert White and Major Roberto D'Aubuisson who he accused of "masterminding" the murder of the archishop are not. Hence their characters are also given transparanet pennames. Does Mr Stone lack the courage of his convictions?
Fact and fiction should be kept separate, or at least mixed with care, when dealing with film. I fear that this director, in his anxiety to get across a very valid message, cast the memory of many victims of Salvador's civil war too lightly to the wind.