“Year of the Dragon” (1985)
Running time: 134 minutes
Written by: Oliver Stone and Michael Cimino based on Year of the Dragon
by Robert Daley
Directed by: Michael Cimino
Featuring: Mickey Rourke, Ariane Koizumi and John Lone
Stanley White: “The first time I saw you, I hated your guts. I think I even hated you before I met you. I hated you on TV. I hated you in Vietnam. You want to know what’s destroying this country? It’s not booze. It’s not drugs. It’s TV. It’s media. It’s people like you. It’s vampires. I hate the way you make your living sticking microphones in people’s faces. You lie every night at 6:00. I hate the way you kill real feelings. I hate everything that you stand for. Most of all, I hate rich kids and I hate this place. So why do I want to fuck you so bad?”
Recently released on blu-ray “Year of the Dragon” (1985) is an oddity of a film, on one hand it was the third effort by writer/director Michael Cimino who had made one of the more memorable sophomore movies of all time with the timeless “The Deer Hunter”(1978), but on the other it had become apparent he had control issues as well as an ego that had no limits, which would not only have an effect on this movie but everything that would follow and had been highlighted with the monumental financial disaster that was “Heavens Gate”(1980). In co-writing and directing “Year of the Dragon” it may have seemed like a safe bet, a contemporary film based in a community that was largely unexplored in Hollywood which also featured a rising star in Mickey Rourke all wrapped up in a healthy dose of action and intrigue. However what transpired was a rushed production with a very uneven performance in the performances of the European actors and dialogue and actions that many took for being racist, some of this is fair, but some is short sighted, much like the muddled screenplay. This is a fish out of water story that feels false, unlike a similar movie that would arrive years later with another visual stylist in the form of Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” (1989), which despite being set around Japan would actually take the main character to that country, something that maybe should have happened in “Year of the Dragon”.
It had been a number of years since I had viewed this movie, on DVD, and the first thing that struck me was the central performance by Mickey Rourke which ti be kind is extremely uneven from scene to scene, in fact sometimes within the same scene which can be jarring if you let it, which unfortunately I did. The reason for this is that he was a late addition to the movie as the actors that were wanted turned it down, not only that but Rourke, at the time in his early thirties was attempting to play a world weary ex-Vietnam vet in his early fifties, something he really does not do believably. In terms of elements that hinder Rourke’s performance of which there are a few is the way in which his hair colour, style and costuming change, again sometimes from scene to scene, this adds to the unevenness of the entire movie.
“Year of the Dragon” is based around Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) New York’s most decorated police Captain and a Vietnam War veteran assigned to New York City’s Chinatown, where he makes it a personal mission to crack down on Chinese organized crime. He is obsessed with his career and neglects his marriage to his wife Connie. To say this is a movie of many plot strands is an understatement to say the least, whereas some movies will seamlessly tie in these strands, “Year of the Dragon” treats each one seperately, they never really coalesce and in fact are disjointed so as to be confusing with an ending that is frankly baffling in terms of any kind of reality.
As has been stated “Year of the Dragon” was co-written and directed by one time boy wonder and double Oscar winner Michael Cimino who had reached the highs of “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and the relative lows of “Heavens Gate” (1980), with this movie he was obviously attempting to get back on his feet, but due to some elements out of his control this was yet another nail in his career. This was a movie with a messy screenplay, uneven performances and a messed up tone, however if watching closely and highlighted by a very good blu-ray transfer there are some parts to enjoy and show Cimino knew how to direct a feature. The mis en scene as well as the colour palette used with the movie are staggering, much like Cimino’s previous films that look stunning, feature a breathtaking amount of detail and create worlds that you believe actually exist, of course his budgets reflected that as well. No matter what people say about the director he was technically a very good director and maybe not a fantastic screenwriter, it may be no co-incidence that his biggest success was credited to four seperate scriptwriters. Interestingly this movie was mostly filmed on a lot, even the exterior shots are filmed inside, this is amazing as Cimino uses deep focus at times and I defy you to pick the outside from the inside, it is an amazing job.
I have already addressed Mickey Rourke’s performance, but his is not the only one, the best performance in my mind is that of John Lone who plays Joey Tai, the head of a criminal empire who seems to know how to adjust his performance, although to be honest his role is the most straight forward, he is the bad guy and a criminal. The rest of the cast seem lost, again this may be due to the rushed nature of the production, actors never really knew who they were portraying at a given time, which harms this movie to no end. The love interests in the movie played by newcomer Ariane (who had such negative reviews, unfair by the way, never really worked in movies again) and Caroline Kava whose character was a one dimensional shrill who seems to be a nemesis at home, but is never really believable and like Rourke was far younger than the person she was to play which is patently obvious and so never really works.
It is unfortunate that “Year of the Dragon” has not aged well at all, whilst it is not a racist movie at all, it is about racist people, the language that is used seems odd and out of date, for the time it may have been acceptable but now seems out of step. Not only that but the main story seems too simplistic, even for 1985, there are few surprises at all, in fact there is a period of the movie when Joey Tai goes to purchase his drugs and this seems far more interesting and political than the cops and robbers plot. The personal life of Stanley White is a complete non-starter, he would have been far more interesting without a wife, being a complete professional without fear or favour, because his racist element makes little sense either. As for White’s love interest in Tracy Tzu, she seems complicated in the writing but I cannot help but feel her best aspects either were not filmed or were left on the cutting room floor.
If you are a fan of either Cimino or Rourke then this might be up your alley, I for one am glad it is available on blu-ray as the transfer is very good, I watched it on a 4K TV and at times was blown away for a movie made in 1985. If you are looking for a deep and meaningful anaylsis of Chinese and Chinese Americans in the 1980s give it a miss.
1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray
Audio commentary by Director Michael Cimino (2005)
Audio Commentary by Film Critic Peter Tonguette (2020)
“From Heaven To Chinatown: David Mansfield on Michael Cimino” (2020)
Prince of The City: Talking Triads, Cops & New York’s mean streets with author Robert Daley (2020)