Joe Eszterhas is the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, earning $3 million — and more — per script. Why? Because "Basic Instinct" was a huge hit.

So, naturally, he stays with that winning formula. Eszterhas' subsequent films — "Sliver," "Show-girls" and now "Jade" — are all variations on the same themes, sleazy "erotic" thrillers that are cruel and debasing to women, with mystery plots that are either simplistic or idiotic — or both.

It's just another example of Hollywood's misguided reward system, especially when you consider that "Sliver" and "Showgirls" were huge flops. And that "Jade" may continue that trend.

"Jade" is the name given to a mysterious woman who is central to a murder investigation — but who is she? All evidence points to Trina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino), but a zealous San Francisco assistant district attorney (David Caruso) doesn't want to believe it. Why? He's still in love with her, though she is married to his best friend, a high-rolling, ruthless attorney (Chazz Palminteri).

So, the D.A. suppresses a piece of evidence he finds at the scene of a particularly gruesome murder and tries to prove Trina's innocence — though the rest of his investigative team is working to prove her guilt.

As directed by veteran William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "The French Connection"), "Jade" is dour and loaded with irritating closeups, as the film redundantly shifts from one side of someone's face to the other side of that same person's face.

The only two elements worth watching are a terrific car chase that is the film's centerpiece (as Friedkin takes a run at duplicating the classic chase in "The French Connection") and supporting player Kenny King as Caruso's partner. King provides comic relief by getting all the best lines and delivering them with deadpan aplomb — and he's not even an actor. He's a 29-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department.

Of course, any movie that places Fiorentino in a thankless role like this one is in trouble from the get-go. After her terrific turn in last year's low-budget, independent "The Last Seduction," one would think that she would have easily landed on Hollywood's A-list. But here she is, with little to do, save performing in degrading sex scenes and making a phone call in the nude. (Richard Crenna also shows up, in a career nadir as California's crooked, foul-mouthed governor.)

The film boasts a double-ending, but it's not all that surprising, since there aren't that many suspects to seriously consider. Worse, however, it's completely illogical. But since the film is loaded with so many unsympathetic sleazeball characters, by the time you get to the end, you probably won't care.

"Jade" is rated R for considerable violence and gore, sex and nudity, profanity and vulgarity.

So, what is it again that gets an NC-17?