If Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon were a car, it would be a massive, growling muscle car. It would run on grain alcohol and the unfulfilled dreams of homeless children. It would have a bomb and a shotgun strapped to the under carriage like Max Rockatansky’s ’73 Ford XB Falcon. And absolutely nothing would be welded, bolted down, or fastened correctly, causing the behemoth to fling all kinds of important things (steering column) every which way the second it whips around a corner too fast. This film is rough sex without release, a crunching thrash metal song without a shred-tastic solo, or some other metaphor I can’t currently muster lacking a crucially important complimentary aspect. Michael Cimino takes an Oliver Stone script and attempts to lay a bleak, hard boiled, neo-noir piece of cinema on us. He almost pulls it off, but there are so many loose seams and incongruent asides that this mighty endeavor ultimately collapses under its own weight. Despite its failure to complete its objective, it is still a fascinating film, and has wormed its way into my regular viewing rotation.
Having the best actor of his generation helming the lead role helps make up for what would otherwise be a casting faux pas: Mickey Rourke is on the gentler side of 30 in this role, attempting to play a 15 year police veteran with a failed marriage. Out of sequence shooting causes the level of fake gray in his hair to vary wildly, and he just doesn’t have the lines in his face to make this aspect of the film work. It strains the believability of his failing marriage, and it’s hard to take someone as fresh-faced as Rourke seriously as “New York City’s most decorated cop”.
Despite this, Rourke gives us a Mike Hammer style protagonist, who callously burns through what little support system he has left in order to thrust a spear of justice into Chinatown’s bloated underbelly. Mickey’s Stanley White is mean, blunt, violent, possessed of hubris, and holds administrative politics in utter contempt. He doesn’t even possess the effervescent humor of a Dirty Harry, and is accused by his superior and old childhood friend of “Running through the department like a piece of heavy machinery”. His obsession with Joey Tai, the film’s chief antagonist, is the stuff of Sophoclean tragedy.
With one glaring exception, the Chinese characters are cast much more effectively than the Anglo Americans. John Lone is fantastic as the debonair villain riding a wave of violence to the top of the Triads. More than just a charismatic scenery-chewer, Lone is also allowed to portray Tai with fear and vulnerability. Moriarty-esque villains are a dime a dozen, but “plucky” and “in over your head” are characteristics usually reserved for the hero. The older Tongs are composed of veteran professionals (Victor Wong cameo!) who dispel any Yellow Peril nonsense from seeping in. Dennis Dun portrays an undercover officer under White (A year later both he and Wong would star in Big Trouble in Little China, arguably the greatest film ever put to celluloid), and manages to make a memorable impression despite his sporadic presence.
The single greatest flaw of the film, by FAR, is the character of Tracy Tzu, a gonzo style television reporter played by the beautiful-but-talentless Arianne. Every scene she speaks in is an island of pure, unadulterated suck in an otherwise tempestuous sea of badassery. The character doesn’t really have legs enough to be more than an ancillary component to the greater narrative, and there is a disjointed affair between her and Stanley shoehorned into what’s supposed to be a boilerplate contest of wills between Tai and White. Another flaw to the film is Oliver Stone’s Sobchakian* insistence on inserting Vietnam into everything his name is attached to. This leads to some uncomfortably incongruent story parallels, like the notion that Stanley’s quest to vanquish the Vietcong as a soldier has been revivified in his mission to clean up the other side of Canal Street. I guess we’re supposed to ignore the fact that China and Vietnam are different countries housing different cultures.
And lastly, the ending is hollow and jarring; utterly out of place with the grim tale that is the rest of the film. White lost a great deal in his quest to topple Joey Tai, but he didn’t lose nearly enough if he’s allowed to have such an appallingly cheesy sendoff, especially in light of the fact that he manages to start a riot just seconds before.
What the film does do right is mood, action, and atmosphere. I’m not a Cimino scholar, but I suspect his direction (And this film in particular) was studied by one Quentin Tarantino. One scene in particular stands out in this regard, featuring a police investigation in the basement of an ancient soy processing facility. Its necessity in the film is debatable considering how involved it is versus how much it forwards the plot, but it is gorgeous, chthonic, and rich. Scenes where Rourke and Lone are allowed to bare their fangs at each other are absolutely electric. Every exchange of gunfire is swift, brutal, and produces a body count. The final showdown between Tai and White, featuring them literally charging each other on a set of rail tracks, is endorphin-inducing. I can’t tell if the sets are constructed or location, but they provide a majestic mix of ye olde noir and LED-lit Gibsonian cyberpunk.
Everything in this film is dirty, save for Tracey’s obnoxiously period apartment. Dragon can get a little didactic at times with speeches about the plight of Chinese people, but it manages to avoid any missteps in portraying the Chinese community as helpless victims unable to control their own fate. Everyone in this film is offered choices; all of the principal players have their own agency. Chances are that if a character has a gun held to his or her head, it’s the consequence of a decision they made, NOT the catalyst for a decision. This film’s ending blows a hole in the back of the noir vibe it was angling for, but everyone dropping nails in their own coffin is a great vintage touch that isn’t really seen in more modern melodramas.
Year of the Dragon fails to achieve the greatness it grasps for, but it is awesome nonetheless. It’s a smorgasbord of amazing camera work, moody settings, unforgiving ambience, and stellar acting. Large chunks of the film feel like Cimino breathed an old Spillane yarn to life. Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by unnecessary characters, curious subplots, and uneven pacing. While not every punch lands, very few of them are pulled. B.
*Another Secret Reference, you human paraquat!
As someone previously (and shamefully) unfamiliar with the early films of Mickey Rourke, his chiseled good looks in Year of the Dragon caught me off guard at first. Underneath his male model exterior, however, lies the same bold, gritty, and scary Rourke I’ve come to know from his more recent work. And scary he is: as the relentless antihero of the 80’s crime noir Year of the Dragon, Rourke bulldozes his way through his enemies and takes what he wants from his friends. Thanks to his magnetic personality, he comes across in this film as one of those rare people who somehow both intimidate and charm.
Rourke’s presence as Police Captain White is the best thing about this film, but the rest of it is quite good. Year of the Dragon is fun in that violent, dirty, brutal way that action films of the late 80’s and early 90’s often were. There’s no shortage of blood, grisly murders or gratuitous explosions. While the plot—revolving around Captain White’s relentless attempts to take down Joey Tai’s violent gang in New York’s Chinatown—is serviceable enough, it’s the film’s penchant for shocking violence and dramatic plot turns that ensnare the viewer.
White isn’t a pure hero by any means; many of the things he does over the course of the film to bring Tai to justice should give the viewer pause. He’s so empowered by the strength of his convictions that he’s willing to bypass the rules to get what he needs. This reckless assertiveness presents itself not just in his work life, but in his sex life as well. He’s both fascinating and uncomfortable to watch.
In addition to Rourke’s performance, John Lone gives an entrancing performance as the ambitious, villainous Tai, while Caroline Reva, the actress playing White’s exasperated wife, Connie, manages to turn a minor supporting role into the emotional core of the film. It also boasts colorful supporting characters, like a cloistered nun working surveillance for Captain White and a weathered Mafia don with an electrolarynx who argues with the film’s antagonist. You could make entire films about some of these supporting characters.
The movie is by no means perfect. Its musical score detracts from the drama on several occasions, particularly during White’s big heart to heart with his wife. Also, the quality of Ariane Koizumi’s performance as the reporter Tracy, White’s extramarital love interest, is beneath this movie. She delivers such an awkward, stilted performance that she shatters the suspension of disbelief in every scene she poisons with her presence. I’m almost shocked such a dirty, grizzled film allowed this soap operatic performance to cheapen it up.
These complaints are minor in comparison with the beautiful mess the rest of the film has to offer, though. It’s easy to forgive foibles like Koizumi’s performance when they’re weighed against scenes like the one in which hot lesbian Chinese bodyguards in clubbing attire fire at White in a crowded discotheque. Whenever you feel yourself losing interest, the film presents you with something like that—something shocking and horrible and amazing—that demands your attention and practically dares you not to care. Like its protagonist, it doesn't ask your permission; it already knows what you really want.
If there’s one scene that embodies the 80’s carnage that is Year of the Dragon, it’s a scene about two-thirds into the movie where our hero, Stanley White, finds himself chasing down a Chinese gunman who tried breaking into his home. As White leaves his house in hot pursuit, the gunman sprays a machine gun at the door said goon exited from, stalling our man of action only temporarily, and allowing the young hoodlum just enough time to hop in a car and hit the gas. New York’s most decorated officer, Detective White, whips out a hand cannon and takes aim for a fraction of a second before firing. In this fraction of a second, he manages to send a bullet through the gunman’s skull, which then explodes in a gory display of splattered blood that would make horror effects maestro Tom Savini blush. As a couple more seconds tick on the clock, this vehicle rolls into a concrete wall and succumbs to a fiery end so intense, one would think the car was wired with dozens of pounds of C4. That’s the kind of Reptilian-brained amusement this film has to offer, or at least, it’s the kind of good, old-fashioned American fun audiences will remember – a hard-nosed, gritty, action-packed police beat that pushes the violence and pain and punishment to the extreme.
As Conor pointed out, there are other elements woven into this blanket of entrails, and they’re forcibly (and poorly) sewn in to pad the film. In this smorgasbord of 80’s bloodbath, there’s the bizarre affair between White and Chinatown reporter Tracy. The scenes between these two are off-putting, to say the least. White, played by Mickey Rourke, is busy spinning his tough, angry cop yarn while Tracy, played by Ariane, hams up a naïve eye candy reporter role more suited for a Woody Allen fantasy. Along with this, our decorated veteran succumbs to old Vietnam wounds in a script that stumbles to make this pain relevant to the plot. The undercurrent flows irregularly, seeming to suggest nothing more than “all Asians look alike” when it comes to Stanley’s inner demons. At least, that’s the message the audience is left with, as this social commentary is tied to this film loosely enough to suggest that it was merely an afterthought in the script-writing phase.
But, for what Year of the Dragon is, a bad-ass infusion of testosterone, it succeeds. The feel of this 80’s noir, the smell, the sound, the taste – it feels authentic. Rourke does one hell of a job giving Stanley White that gruff allure, the kind of gruff allure once used to make cigarettes cool. And like a decent glass of scotch, Year of the Dragon goes down smoothly, with just a mild hint of a rough aftertaste.
Many films are released year after year to feed this part of our brains, to tantalize and ensnare that lizard core, but few barrel past the suspension of disbelief to truly captivate us in a way that feels legitimate. In this case, that legitimacy remains intact.
Next: The Apartment. Get Psyched!