Many people have openly questioned whether director Michael Cimino, responsible for the most publicized financial disaster in movie history, Heaven’s Gate, could restore his reputation with his new movie, Year of the Dragon. It is certainly a brutally effective police melodrama, its violent action skilfully choreographed. But it is also pretentious and overreaching, with emotional scenes so highly charged that they become absurd. The film, which chronicles a police crackdown on street gangs in New York City’s Chinatown, alternates between rapidfire shootouts and histrionic grief. Year of the Dragon, whose title is never explained, is a television cop show with a larger field of vision, more extras and Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
The cleaning up of Chinatown in Year of the Dragon is actually a one-man crusade by Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a Vietnam veteran who is the most decorated cop in New York. White is assigned to the Chinatown precinct just after the area’s unofficial mayor has been gunned down. Because White’s superiors do not support him—they do not want to tread on political toes—he enlists the aid of a TV news reporter, Tracy Tzu (Ariane), to help him publicize the crackdown. After a massacre in a restaurant—which White and Tzu witness—Joey Tai (John Lone), who is young, ambitious and ruthless, becomes the head of the Chinatown mafia, which deals lucratively in heroin. White is well aware that it is Tai who continues to control the street gangs. To get him, White is willing to sacrifice nearly anyone and anything—and eventually he does.
Hardly anyone likes White, and it is little wonder. He shoots off his amusingly profane mouth, neglects his wife (Caroline Kava), is almost totally lacking in guile for a policeman, pushes himself into Tzu’s life and is generally an insensitive brute. He is racist, sexist and selfish. But because he is obsessed with cleaning up the city, the movie suggests that his behavior should be forgiven. There is a confusing subtext about his readapting to American life after Vietnam, but it makes little sense. The movie seems to be hunting for excuses to praise a character who takes the law into his own hands. White’s priorities, to put it mildly, are warped. After Tai’s hoodlums slash his wife’s throat, they rape Tzu. Only then does White declare, “He went too far this time.”
As White, Rourke dominates Year of the Dragon, dressed in designer clothes that are much too slick for the character. With his hair dyed a chic grey, he gives an intense performance, but there is almost too much of it. In directing Rourke’s performance, Cimino demands that every emotion be blown up like a balloon. Cimino seems so enamored of each scene he sets up that he finds it difficult to bring it to an end. When Tai works out a drug deal in Thailand, it is not enough that the action be explained in a few lines of dialogue—Cimino has to take his cameras to Thailand and recruit as many Thai army extras as he can. The director seems obsessed by size.
For all its severed heads and exploding blood bags, Year of the Dragon does not have much visceral excitement. Everything in the film seems too carefully planned, organized or manufactured. Realism is not Cimino’s strength. Like White’s clothes, his wife does not seem to belong to him; for some mysterious reason she resembles a stereotypical truck-driving lesbian. And although Tzu is a successful journalist and a spoiled daughter, her apartment, with one of the most fabulous views of the Manhattan skyline ever seen in the movies, is ridiculously gargantuan. Nor does the naïve and unpolished undercover rookie whom White uses to spy on Tai seem believable. Cimino humanizes the rookie as he does his other minor characters so that he can either have them raped or killed. Only White emerges triumphant in a movie which, morally, needs to be hosed down.
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