I will be rather surprised if Year of the Dragon gets by this newsgroup without being flamed at least once. It's a very easy film to hate. However, I do not hate Year of the Dragon. Rather, I am somewhat astonished at it. Year of the Dragon is Michael Cimino's comeback film after his tremendous financial and critical disaster, Heaven's Gate. (If you just came in recently, I should mention that I consider Heaven's Gate to be a very good film, and have never understood why so many critics treated it so savagely.) Year of the Dragon is a violent story of a cop trying to clean up New York's Chinatown. It's untidy, sprawling, unsympathetic, perhaps not too intelligent, and, to some people's minds, racist. On the other hand, it displays an awesome visual sense and overpowering talent at sheer, pure filmmaking. It's also tremendously exciting, bloody, and thought provoking. Year of the Dragon is a film which you will either love or hate, or possibly a little of both. I found it one of the most powerful films of the year, even though I recognized its many flaws.
Stan White, the most decorated police officer in New York City, takes over the Chinatown precinct just as it's beginning to explode. He is ordered to just close down the youth gangs, but he intends to stamp out organized crime in Chinatown. Joey Tai, a young crimelord, is seeking to gain control of all of the Chinese mobs, which control vast extortion rackets, gambling rings, and a huge drug trade. Tai is exceedingly clever and smooth, but just a shade too ambitious. White has very few virtues, but his honesty and tenacity make him a match for Tai. Between them, Chinatown is soon close to exploding.
The lynchpins of the story are White and Tai. White isn't a nice fellow at all. He is compulsively, thoughtlessly, destructively committed to his goals. White pushes others as hard as himself, but they usually aren't as lucky as he is. No matter who asks or orders him to stop, no matter how much harm results, no matter who gets hurt, White won't stop. He could, but he won't. Tai is in a similar situation, but unlike White, once in he has no way out. He is committed to high stakes, and he couldn't back out if he wanted to. Tai is utterly ruthless, and extremely charming. These two men, one who cannot stop and one who will not stop, are rivals in a struggle that they cannot both survive. Most likely, neither will.
Mickey Rourke plays White, and John Lone plays Tai. There is no question in any critic's mind that Lone is brilliant in his role. Every move, every word, every action adds to the depth of his character. His is the more conventional role, the charming gangster. Rourke's role is less standard. Many critics object that they didn't like White. Precisely. The rough and tough obsessed hero is a common figure in film, but White is several steps beyond that. Unlike the usual driven man, we aren't supposed to like, or even admire, White. Probably the emotion Cimino meant us to feel is awe. I think that Rourke judged the role very well, and did a great job with it.
Year of the Dragon isn't a tidy film, and Rourke's role is reflexive of the untidyness. The film doesn't project the neat black and white film world we are used to, nor even the shades of gray which some few films show. To express it in the terms of the metaphor, Year of the Dragon shows a world of bright, garish flashes of moral color. While characters are largely consistent, we cannot neatly say that this is the good guy and this the bad. Those on the side of the law bend it to suit their own notions of justice. The criminals show some oddly honorable impulses, but cannot be counted on even in those. The characters tend to follow their own inner laws rather than the conventions of hero and villain.
Cimino's script, co-written with Oliver Stone, isn't the most intelligent piece of writing in recent memory. There are definite flaws in the story, and it would play better twenty minutes shorter. The basic concept is interesting, and the characters are well written. Some dialog is good, some less so. Scenes involving plot exposition and historical background are particularly painful, as is the dialog written for Rourke's love interest, a Chinese reporter poorly played by a model named Ariane.
Cimino does a better job directing than writing. In particular, the action sequences are practically like a belt in the jaw. The shootouts, knifings, chases, and fistfights in Year of the Dragon are almost a primer on how to make action exciting. Cimino also does well with his main characters, but shows a less sure hand when not focusing on them.
The production design on Year of the Dragon (by Wolf Kroeger) is superb, recreating New York's Chinatown in Dino de Laurentiis' North Carolina studio. The streets, restaurants, and sweatshops are brilliantly rendered, utterly convincingly. When combined with lush photography and sinuous camera moves (both designed and executed by Alex Thomson), the production design makes a great impression.
Year of the Dragon is certainly not a film which will be universally liked. Reviews have mostly been strongly positive or stingingly negative. Year of the Dragon is, in my opinion, worth seeing, if one keeps in mind that it falls far short of perfection. The display of talent overcomes a plot and some attitudes which are questionable. Those particularly interested in the craft of filmmaking should study it for Cimino's amazing way with action sequences. Those who are willing to listen to controversial arguments with the intention of later discussing them will find ample material. Those who like to see people blown away with an accompanying thunder of noise will not be disappointed, either. People particularly sensitive about racism, Vietnam, movie violence, or civil rights are not likely to be pleased with Year of the Dragon, but at least it will give them something to get good and angry about.
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