Year of the Dragon Review
What on earth are we to make of Michael Cimino ? A talented young scriptwriter who made an auspicious directorial debut with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, he went on to the multi-Oscar winning The Deer Hunter and looked increasingly like one of the great American filmmakers of his time. The fiasco surrounding Heaven's Gate stopped him in his tracks, no matter that it remains a truly ambitious, often beautiful folly and one of the most rewarding movies of the 1980s. Labelled as a wild card who had destroyed United Artists, Cimino found himself in the wilderness, unable to find money to make his own films and denied the chance to work as a director for hire. But then, out of the blue, an offer came from Dino De Laurentis - the man who is the only possible common link between Michael Winner, Ingmar Bergman and David Cronenberg. Dino had a screenplay by an intense and seemingly unbalanced young writer called Oliver Stone. Based on a bestselling pulp thriller by Robert Daley, Year of the Dragon was tough, exciting and needed a director who could give epic scale to a rather sordid storyline. Cimino seemed the ideal candidate and he wanted to prove that he was a good boy.
Set in New York in the mid-1980s, the film deals with the emergence of the Chinese Mafia, the ‘Triads’, and its violent effects on life in Chinatown. Captain Stanley White (Rourke) is a newcomer to the district, determined to clean up the endemic corruption and brutality, but he encounters opposition from his superiors and the older members of the Chinese community who want their ‘old ways’ of doing business respected. White’s personal life is also in a mess. Married to Connie (Kava), he feels unloved and drifts into the bed of Asiatic TV reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane). A series of violent events brings White into direct conflict with a young Triad member, Joey Tai (Lone), and suddenly things get nasty as White’s crusade begins to threaten his personal life.
However considerable one’s qualms about the film are, it has to be acknowledged that, as a violent cop thriller, it works. Indeed, it’s easy to see why Year of the Dragon works. It’s the kind of balls-out cop thriller that spends its entire running time putting the screws on the audience, either emotionally or viscerally. In this respect – and a couple of others – it resembles a 1980s version of The French Connection, another movie which turned on audiences for its entire length. Cimino presents violence with a kind of super-charged eroticism, the camera cavorting amidst the carnage as if engaged in a dance of death. There’s no sense here of directorial responsibility in the presentation of brutality and cruelty. It’s being shown to hype up the audience. Bullets leave wounds the size of tennis balls, blood is splattered everywhere, flesh is ripped apart, women are raped, throats are slit and the only emotion that the film seems to be expressing is excitement. By the time we get to the protracted climax, we’re screaming for blood ourselves. But Cimino is a talented filmmaker and he’s very canny with his pacing. He doesn’t make the mistake of screaming everything at the same pitch. Like Coppola in The Godfather, he uses lengthy dialogue scenes in order to heighten the sadistic violence that erupts soon after. But Coppola never showed you violence except to make you hate violence. Cimino wallows in it for its undoubted sensual thrill. What makes this all the more queasy is that the film is so brilliantly well made. Cimino stages the action with knife-edge tension and every camera set-up is right on the money. When we get a scene in Thailand, the film broadens out and gains a sense of epic which is breathtaking. Alex Thomson’s cinematography is staggeringly good throughout, creating an atmosphere of white-hot intensity, filtered through some kind of brightly coloured fever dream.
But there’s a key difference between this movie and a film like The French Connection. William Friedkin’s film had an elegance and a wit which Cimino’s lacks and it didn’t ask you to like Popeye Doyle. Gene Hackman’s ambivalent performance kept you guessing as to whether there was anything worth admiring in the guy apart from his unceasing dedication to getting his quarry behind bars. Cimino’s film makes one fatal error that it never recovers from. It presents Stanley White as a tough, brutal, racist cop who beats his wife and fucks a TV reporter on the side because he’s lonely. This would be fine if we were given some distance and perspective. But it soon becomes clear that there’s no irony in this presentation – we’re meant to love the guy because he’s the only cop in New York with the guts to say what he thinks and do the dirty jobs that need doing. When he goes off on one of his rants, claiming that the Americans lost Vietnam because they were too clever or that Chinatown is just like Vietnam, he comes across as self-pitying rather than tragically heroic. Vietnam is used, as so often, as a catch-all symbol for everything that's wrong with America but it's a symbol which hasn't been thought through and is simply meant to pound a few emotional chords in the absence of anything more profound. Stanley treats people terribly – every time he gets into a room with someone else, it turns into a shouting match – and then complains because he feels unloved. He can’t express love except through being a rough-hewn male chauvanist – when he first sleeps with Tracy Tzu, it begins like a rape and is intended to end up as the most earth-shattering sexual encounter since Oliver Reed bedded Glenda Jackson in Women in Love. But we’re meant to adore this philistine. Thank God, we’re meant to say, that there are men like this who know what needs to be done and don’t care about politesse. When one of his officers raises doubts about the civil rights of the men they are harrying, Stan shouts “Fuck their civil rights!” and we’re supposed to applaud him. In the greatest of all maverick cop movies, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, Harry was a scary, intensely troubling man clinging on to his sanity by a hair. Watching that film, the intentional irony was that in breaking all the rules, Harry loses everything that was supposed to define him and he ends up tossing his badge into the river. Year of the Dragon is more like one of the Dirty Harry sequels, where Harry’s criminal disregard for any kind of regulations became a badge of honour and we were meant to scream our approval as he took out the human trash.
A much bigger problem, and the reason why the film never quite impresses as it should do, is the script. The dialogue throughout is either flip or over-expository in the worst manner. Oliver Stone’s hand is much in evidence, with several speeches sounding like position papers in a socio-political debate. More troubling is the fatal lack of characterisation. Stanley White is basically a Polish version of Popeye Doyle but Mickey Rourke plays him as a martyr to his own sense of honour. It’s not a bad performance exactly – some of the long speeches he gets couldn’t possibly be played well, not even by Brando at his peak – and there's a good flamboyance to his early scenes but it’s rather boringly played on one-note. You can’t even begin to see why Connie would put up with him and it’s even less likely that a woman as intelligent as Tracy Tzu is supposed to be would have even the slightest bit of romantic interest in him. Unfortunately, that last point remains vague because Ariane, playing Tracy, gives one of the worst performances of the 1980s. It’s so bad that it makes Elizabeth Berridge in Amadeus look halfway mediocre. She can’t emote, she can’t deliver a line in anything but a monotone and her only purpose in the film seems to be to show off her admittedly fantastic body. Realising this, Cimino ensures that she gets as many gratuitous nude scenes as possible. Caroline Kava is much better but the role of Connie is a downer and she never gets a chance to supply any shading. The only actor in the film who gets a chance to show off his talent is John Lone. Given the best role in the film, he walks away with every scene in which he appears, even when required to spout gibberish about Charlie Chan - who incidentally was not a sinister figure, as the film suggests, but a warm and cuddly avuncular detective who was the undoubted hero in all his incarnations.
Critics have complained about the alleged racism of the film. Although I'm no expert on the history of the Triads and their impact on American life, I don’t think it’s any more offensively racist than any other Hollywood action movie. It’s been an American tradition that every action blockbuster has to offend at least one group – frequently the English, sometimes the South Africans, the French, the Germans, black people, Southerners, Jews, Catholics, people who live in trailer parks and so on – and this has been the case ever since the demonisation of Native American Indians in countless westerns. The portrayal of the Chinese in this film is simplistic and xenophobic but it’s more thoughtlessness than active racism. What the film is, however, is misanthropic. Stanley is the hero and he spends the entire running time pointing fingers at everyone else who is ruining his life and, by extension, America itself. Although it’s accidental, the fact that John Lone emerges as the most stylish person in the movie does a lot to counterbalance the more reactionary elements.
I don’t think Year of the Dragon is a particularly good film but it’s not merely average. It looks stunning, it’s exciting and it maintains a head of steam that keeps it going when it might reasonably be expected to pall. Cimino emerges from it as a director whose material needs improving but whose eye is unerring and it’s a shame that the subsequent failure of his (rather undervalued) next film The Sicilian seemed to draw a veil over his career. A couple of movies down the line, he’s still not recovered the reputation he had after The Deer Hunter and I doubt he ever will. But as the director of Heaven’s Gate, a great, big, beautiful mess of a kind that only a visionary can produce, he deserves to be better remembered and Year of the Dragon has enough merit to be worth another look.
Sanctuary’s region-free DVD release of Year of the Dragon is a mixture of good and bad. The transfer is good in some respects and disappointing in others, the soundtrack is generally excellent and there are no extras at all.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. I saw it in the cinema back in 1986 but haven’t seen it in its proper Scope ratio since and it’s a revelation. Cimino uses the whole of the frame with breathtaking confidence and if you’ve only seen this is pan and scan or cropped to 1.85:1, then you haven’t seen it. The transfer offers a fantastic level of detail with images so crisp that they look brand new. Given the huge variation in lighting styles throughout the film, this in itself is impressive. Colours are also well transferred; richly saturated but not bleeding into each other. However, there is some blocky artefacting throughout, noticeable in blacks and shadows. Some of the interiors appear a little flat too. But overall, the film hasn’t looked this good since its first release and if you’re a fan, then having it in its proper ratio will be reason enough to get a copy.
There are two soundtracks present; the original 2 channel Stereo mix and a newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Personally, I preferred the more natural sound of the former, in which dialogue and ambient effects stretch over the front channels. The 5.1 mix is busier and more active but I found it rather artificial and there is very little use of the subwoofer or the rear channels. David Mansfield’s atmospheric score sounds very striking on both tracks.
There are, as previously mentioned, no extras. Nor are there any subtitles, except for those which translate brief scenes conducted in Cantonese.
Year of the Dragon is a bizarre film which works but which leaves you with a very unpleasant aftertaste. No doubting, however, the cult following it has developed over the years. The DVD is generally quite good but the lack of extra features is disappointing.
Last updated: 25/06/2018 20:50:37