“Dragons are strong and independent figures, but they yearn for support and love.”
That quote could apply to both Stanley White, the main character of Year of the Dragon played by Mickey Rourke, and its director Michael Cimino. I have a morbid fascination with Cimino. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that so little is known about him, or the fact that he rarely gave interviews, or most likely the fact that he’s had a career trajectory like very few people in the industry have had. Starting out as a celebrated director of commercials who then transitioned into screenwriting, Cimino achieved fame and controversy with his second film The Deer Hunter from 1978 (which also happens to be one of my favorite films), winning five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Usually it’s quite hard to live up to that kind of acclaim and attention, as it often results in a slight dip in quality in the creator’s next work, but for Cimino it was literally like winning the lottery whilst standing on the edge of a cliff. Because his next film became his passion project Heaven’s Gate, which became one of the most expensive flops of all time that ensured the bankruptcy of United Artists and signaled the end of the New Hollywood era. Cimino would never achieve the same level of acclaim or commercial success again, but not for a lack of trying, and perhaps his best shot back at the top was his surprisingly entertaining cop thriller Year of the Dragon.
The actual story of the film isn’t particularly fresh or original. NYPD Captain and Vietnam-veteran Stanley White, played by the aforementioned Mickey Rourke, is obsessed with bringing down the Chinese Triads of Chinatown and its leader Joey Tai, played by John Lone, despite being told by his superiors and colleagues to lay off Tai and Chinatown in general. But White can’t stop, even when he risks the lives of the people closest to him and even himself. We’ve seen the obsessed cop in plenty of movies before and since this, and many of the small individual elements are somewhat clichéd for the cop genre, but what makes the movie semi-fresh and interesting is it’s exploration into the Triads (a relatively new and unknown concept in 1985).
Year of the Dragon stands in stark contrast with Cimino’s last two films. Whereas The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate had an air of prestige to them (and some would argue pretension), this is a much more stripped-down affair that functions first and foremost as a lean-and-mean-cop thriller. I would say in that sense, it probably has more in common with Cimino’s first film, the surprisingly light buddy heist film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. But that doesn’t mean Cimino’s ambitions have mellowed however. The film is just as bombastic, and much more aggressive, than those earlier films. Cimino and his co-writer Oliver Stone are uncompromising in depicting White for what he is, which is an aggressive, violent and racist cop. Some might say they’re too uncompromising, removing any sort of likeability for him, but we remain drawn to White throughout the film, partly because he seems to be more self-aware to his own faults as the film goes on, and partly due to Rourke’s magnetic screen presence. The only aspect of White that I find questionable is that he’s apparently supposed to be middle-aged but I always presumed he was supposed to be in his mid-thirties, much like Rourke was at the time of filming. Maybe this is just me failing to suspend my disbelief, but just because you dye someone’s hair grey/white doesn’t mean they automatically look older.
Just like Cimino’s last two films, Dragon concerns itself a lot with the immigrant experience in America. White is a Polack who changed his name from the very Polish-sounding Wizynski to the more American and Anglo-Saxon-sounding White, presumably fit in and seem more ‘American’, and perhaps evade racial discrimination, who knows? As White explains to reporter and love-interest Tracy Tzu, played by Ariane (whose performance goes from being okay to not very good), the Chinese helped build the railroad yet they rarely received any recognition for it, but not because they didn’t feel like they deserved it, but rather because they like to stay behind the curtain and remain invisible, so to say. The Triads of Chinatown operate the same way, hoping to be invisible to the rest of white American (pun intended). That was actually one of the reasons the film became so controversial upon release, since the existence of the Triads and Chinese-American organized crime was so little discussed that its very existence was discarded.
The film is also in an interesting way dealing with the conflict between the younger and the older generations and their respective way of doing business. Joey Tai is the young and more aggressive member of the Triad who are in charge of Chinatown, and his way of doing business causes some fractions from the old-timers. He cuts off the Italians so that the Chinese can operate more independently. White functions in a similar way, only for the NYPD (and he’s supposed to be older but I didn’t pick that up so I will just go on with my thesis). White is constantly told by his superiors and colleges to lay off from the Triads, with many of them explaining that they more or less wish to maintain the status quo. And, not to give anything away, in the end nothing’s changed, and the status quo has been maintained.
So Year of the Dragon is big, sprawling, not very subtle, problematic and probably not a good representation of what Cimino could do, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained throughout it and found many admirable and downright impressive elements of it, such as the camera work, the atmosphere, the performances and the whole milieu. As previously stated, this was probably Cimino’s only shot at some sort of comeback and whilst it wasn’t successful (though part of that can be blamed on perceived racism and Dino De Laurentiis’ handling of the film) it’s still an enjoyable yarn, and shows that Cimino could do a straightforward genre picture.
Before I go, I just wish to point out the fact that many of the actors in this film also appear in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China a year later, including Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. So their presence in this film made me happy.