Year of the Dragon


Year of the Dragon (dir. Michael Cimino, 1985)

“They’d have to get three actors to play me because two of them would die.” – Mickey Rourke when asked about his Biopic

“Well, I guess if you fight a war long enough, you end up marrying the enemy.” – Oliver Stone’s original final line for Year of the Dragon. It was rejected by the studio.

China has dominated world news for years now. Whether it’s their roaring economy, their fraught relationship with North Korea, or the glass bridge they built, every politician is talking about China, and every semi-intelligent magazine has an office devoted to covering the market-socialist empire. But China’s growth isn’t just confined to towering cityscapes and wine consumption, they’ve also made huge gains in entertainment, and specifically, movies.

By 2017 experts predict their domestic box office will top that of the United States. Currently Wang Jianlin, the so called “richest man in China”, is deep in the process of building Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis, an 8.2 Billion dollar studio/amusement park/theater/hotel/yacht club/celebrity wax museum. Even huge Hollywood stars are heading to China to snag their next paycheck.

Meanwhile, Year of the Dragon, directed by Michael Cimino (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter) was produced thirty years ago (sidenote: 1985 WAS 30 YEARS AGO. Excuse me while I weep into my oat scone) back when China was still in the very early stages of economic reform and political loosening, just as the country started consuming western movies. Which is to say that the film presents a very old fashioned version of Chinese culture. In keeping with Film Noir tradition, the Chinatown of 1985 is presented as an impenetrable community, separate from the rest of the city. A place where people can easily disappear.

Year of the Dragon tells the story of Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a Polish cop/Vietnam vet/open racist who’s just been made captain of the Manhattan district encompassing Chinatown. Crime is on the rise in the area as the Chinese mafia tightens their grip on the heroin trade and starts to muscle out the Italians. The Chinese mafia is led by rising star, Joey Tai. Tai is power hungry and hell bent on controlling more territory. He and White clash immediately. The ensuing plot centers on their confrontations.

Year of the Dragon is the kind of big, flawed, gaudy, boisterous movie that I love. From mod-rock clubs, to underground soybean factories, to the jungles of Thailand, the film’s sprawl is boundless. There’s a particularly excellent sequence where White and his partner are called to fish two dead bodies out of a factory basement. The basement is a cavernous maze of murky tunnels. White’s ghostly flashlight cuts through the blackness, briefly illuminating dozens of men working in the dark. It feels like a world we aren’t supposed to see. And Year of the Dragon has the patience to go there. It has the patience to take detours and linger on forgotten spaces.

The film is gloriously directed by Michael Cimino. Cimino is the notorious director of Deer Hunter (Best picture winner in 1976) and Heaven’s Gate (Often cited as the death of the auteur driven studio films of the 1970s. Much in the way critics use Altamont to “end” the “60s”,  Heaven’s Gate is used to “end” of the “70s” .) All the hallmarks of a Cimino film are here: a long opening sequence that’s light on dialog and heavy on pageantry, an outsider trying to make his way through a cloistered ethnic group, and as I mentioned earlier – SCOPE. What amazes me most about a film like Year of the Dragon is the sheer amount of stuff Cimino can get in the frame. He uses every inch of the screen to immerse you in his chosen world and all of it is shot with beautiful dark reds and bright blacks.

The other obvious highlight is Mickey Rourke. Not only does Rourke have a face that’s just as beautiful when it’s bruised as when it’s healthy (a key to any great cop character); he plays Stanley in classic dirt bag cop fashion: violent mood swings, contempt for authority, even a sloppy no-name partner. Rourke is one of those actors who can go for broke without breaking the illusion. Whenever he’s crying, or grabbing people in a hug, it should be melodrama, but something about Rourke stays raw. His movies are so much fun to watch because you never know when he’s gonna step on an emotional landmine. He puts as much angst into stirring his coffee as he does a partner’s death.

And thankfully Cimino doesn’t make Rourke’s character a neutral observer. White doesn’t have a thirty minute opening act where he learns just how deep the corruption goes. He doesn’t have a montage where he explores the neighborhood and tries to learn a few Chinese phrases. No, White literally shows up ready to fight in minute ten. In his first meeting with the Chinese mob, Rourke doesn’t beat around the bush, he starts dropping f bombs and flexing his racist bonafides. Cimino has the guts to get straight to the tension. The film does the smart thing of building context in reverse.

And much like the emotions, the violence throughout Year of the Dragon is unsparing. It’s instantaneous. It pops up at random. One minute you’re in the middle of a standard domestic argument, the next minute White’s family has been ambushed and he’s stumbling through the street, guns blazing.

A lot of reviews in 1985 focused on the film’s excess, the excess of action, of characters, of cars that inexplicably explode after hitting walls at moderate speeds. And while all of this could seem indulgent, I found it that it reinforced White’s state of mind. All of the surrounding noise heightens our feeling that White is the dutch boy with his finger in the dam. In his mind, he’s the one man holding back chaos. The more extenuating circumstances come around the corner, the more we understand why White looks like he just woke up in ditch.

Cimino makes loaded movies, the kind of globe skipping, deep focus films that might seem longwinded. He stacks the background with extras. He meanders. It’s easy to see why they aren’t for everyone. You have to surrender to his vision, but ultimately that’s what makes Year of the Dragon so worth seeing, it’s such a specific vision.



Random Notes:

  • I’ve always wondered why the guys doing surveillance in movies take so many pictures…. They’ll be tailing someone to a secret meeting on the docks and they’ll snap like 100 pictures of the bad guys shaking hands. Wouldn’t one or two do?! It’s more understandable with digital, but back then all those photos had be developed. Is there one guy at the police station on development duty? Or are the police just going to Walgreens and getting back  a shoebox full of shots
  • Michael Cimino died two weeks ago. Every single obituary spent a inordinate amount of time discussing the “failure” of Heaven’s Gate, BUT we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he was genius and should be remembered as such.

One comment

  1. I love Rourke. I will have to watch this after reading your tantalising review. Many thanks for the tip!

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