Movie Review: Year of the Dragon (1985)
“It isn’t the Bronx or Brooklyn. It isn’t even New York. It’s Chinatown…and it’s about to explode.”
Year of the Dragon (1985)
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Mickey Rourke, John Lone, Ariane
Synopsis: A police detective cracks down on organised crime in Chinatown after the murder of Triad boss.
Scratchy old black-and-white movies from the 1940s often contain a scene in which a lone uniformed official stands in a doorway to form a human barrier between a pack of eager reporters and the subject of the story on which they’re desperate to report. He normally has his back to the pack, a hand on each doorknob and his hat comically askew. Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone clearly remember those movies because they wrote such a scene into Year of the Dragon, even though that sort of shot had long since been consigned to the metaphorical waste basket. They also resurrect another obsolete scene (usually reserved for comedies) when Connie White (Caroline Kava), the long-suffering, neglected wife of NYC’s most highly-decorated cop, flings the contents of her husband’s clothes out of their bedroom window so that, when he arrives home, he finds them strewn across the front lawn. If we were very charitable we might suspect that such antiquated tableaus were a nod to its lead character’s determination to maintain the standards – when it comes to dealing with criminals, at least – of a more principled age. But we – or this reviewer, at least – are not charitable; we’re pragmatic, and we know that the inclusion of such scenes merely confirms the sheer awfulness of almost all aspects of Year of the Dragon.
Cimino must really have wanted Mickey Rourke (Johnny Handsome, Blunt Force Trauma) for the lead (when he realised he wasn’t going to get Eastwood or Newman, anyway), because, although Rourke does as well as he can with such an inconsistent, poorly-written part, no amount of talcum powder to his temples is going to convince anyone that he’s a grizzled 43-year-old war veteran. He plays Stanley White, a tough, uncompromising New York cop who quickly has his superiors regretting assigning him to keep the peace in Chinatown following the murder of a high-ranking Triad boss. White views the world in absolutes: if you’re not bad, you’re good; if you’re not good, you’re bad, and he has no time for the tacit agreement which sees the police turning a blind eye to Triad gambling dens in return for peace on the streets. In no time at all, he’s ruffling the feathers of the old men perched atop the Triad pyramid, leaving the way open for elegant young gun Joey Tai (John Lone – Rush Hour 2) to smooth-talk his way to the summit of the New York branch. It’s a rise which mirrors that of White, and emphasises the fact that the men are two sides of the same coin.
Nestled deep in the heart of a decade that witnessed the last hurrah of untrammelled prejudice, Year of the Dragon embraces excess with astonishing enthusiasm. If Cimino could only harness his visual flair to a decent script he could undoubtedly produce major works to rank alongside some of the masters, but too often he assigns writing duties to a hack named Cimino. Even worse, for Year of the Dragon he saddles himself with Oliver Stone, a co-writer whose work is informed by a few too many psychological hang-ups. Even that doesn’t explain the woeful quality of a screenplay which somehow succeeds in transforming the blueprint for a terrific gangster movie into an overblown and inconsistent mess. Decent actors are forced to recite dialogue that sounds like it was hurriedly scrawled on the back of an envelope minutes before the cameras rolled, while characters attitudes towards situations – and one another – inexplicably change from one scene to the next. Exposition is clumsily inserted into conversations, and characters are annoyingly prone to giving lectures on subjects like the history of the Chinese immigrant at inappropriate moments.
There are some modest positives to be found, though. Cimino’s proficiency at staging action sequences is plain to see, and a deafening assassination attempt in a restaurant provides a perfect example of both the director’s skill and the overkill that plagues so much of Year of the Dragon. Rourke deserves credit for at least trying to bring some credibility to such a crudely sketched character as Stanley White, but his work is eclipsed by that of John Lone, whose relaxed charm provides a much-needed counterpoint to the over-emoting of the majority of the cast and the overblown nature of Year of the Dragon in general.
(Reviewed 11th May 2016)