Five years after the boondoggle that was Heaven’s Gate, director Michael Cimino got a chance to prove he could still manage a piece of entertainment that didn’t go over budget or schedule. He fulfilled his obligation with Year of the Dragon, which ended up telling us more about Cimino than any other film he’s made. Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) is a crude, racist, hard-driving NYC cop recently transferred to the city’s Chinatown district. A Vietnam veteran (throw a stick in an ’80s multiplex and you’d hit ten ‘Nam-vet characters), Stanley still seems to be fighting the war in his head, and he seems unable to distinguish between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. (To him, and to use the language he’d use, all slants are the same.) Stanley takes it upon himself to clean up the gang wars in Chinatown, and he focuses his wrath on up-and-coming Triad leader Joey Tai (John Lone). In the process, he gets just about everyone around him killed or assaulted.
Stanley is a prick, but he … No, actually he’s pretty much just a prick. But the movie, co-written by Cimino and Oliver Stone, clearly means us to see Stanley as a flawed but noble knight on a crusade against corruption. Time and again, people tell Stanley he’s going too far, he cares too much, and if you listen carefully you can hear studio executives saying the same things to Cimino on the set of Heaven’s Gate, the movie whose excesses sank an entire studio. Year of the Dragon gives us a film director’s self-dramatization in the bad-ass person of Mickey Rourke, who takes obvious relish in playing a sanctimonious scrapper who “can’t be bought.”
A great deal of machismo washes around in the narrative. Estranged from his long-suffering wife (Caroline Kava, who manages to do something real with her scenes), Stanley takes up with TV reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane), who lives in a swanky loft (with a tub to die for) overlooking the city lights. She’s slick and pretty and rich; Stanley despises her and lusts after her — you know the drill. The Japanese/Dutch model Ariane is decidedly not an actress, and we don’t know what either Stanley or Cimino sees in her; maybe she was foisted on the movie by producer Dino DeLaurentiis.
I never quite got a handle on Joey Tai, who seems meant to be a vicious youngster clawing his way up the ranks but covering his brutality with an elegant veneer. John Lone shows us only the veneer; he’s a riveting actor but not remotely plausible as someone capable of violence, much less someone capable of plopping a rival’s severed head onto a table. Lone looks uncomfortable, disdainful of the material. He also gets the movie’s most unsayable platitudes about the splendor of Chinese history (though he gets stiff competition from Dennis Dun as a hapless chauffeur sent by Stanley to spy on Joey’s organization).
On the face of it, Year of the Dragon is a klutzy mess, but Cimino’s eye makes all the difference. A classically shot cop drama with several electrifying shoot-outs, it’s a beautifully rhythmed piece that, if made by a different director a few years earlier (in the era of Serpico and Dirty Harry and Prince of the City), would have been received as the firecracker entertainment it is. Despite the presence of DeLaurentiis tapping his watch and double-checking the expense sheets, Cimino still indulges his passion for pomp and circumstance — the movie is full of funerals, or solemn processions, or solemn funeral processions. You want the world’s most gorgeous graduation video, Cimino’s your man.
Still, it’s the implosive obsession of Stanley White — and of the director he stands in for — that will stay with you the longest. Year of the Dragon is moviemaker psychopathology at its most naked, with Mickey Rourke barging into crowded Triad enclaves and slapping people around. Is he suicidal? Is he stupid? No, he just cares too much. As he says, he’s “not going to lose the war — not this time.” It wasn’t long before Cimino was sent back to movie jail, after a few more non-starters like The Sicilian and Desperate Hours, but in Year of the Dragon he kicks the cell door open with a resounding clang.