Year of the Dragon Reviews
Michael Cimino stands as a memorable director in my eyes for having crafted the exciting Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and the epic war masterpiece The Deer Hunter (1978), the latter which I consider to be one of the greatest films ever made. However, the director since became more notorious for his industry-changing box office flop Heaven's Gate (1980). So Year of the Dragon comes within a brief span of one of the greatest films ever made and another said by many to be among the worst. But nevertheless I have always had an appreciation for the director's sense of style, and so to see that applied to a screenplay by Academy Award winning writer Oliver Stone would really suggest a great film in the works.
Year of the Dragon was a film I had to watch twice. I perceived that it would be far more of an action-focused crime drama than it was, certifying the lack of understanding I carried about Oliver Stone at the time. Upon viewing it again a second time, I was easily able to identify that in actual fact it was Michael Cimino's attempt at a neo-noir. And it was quite an enjoyable one because as early as the beginning I could tell that there was an interesting story with Year of the Dragon. We are immediately thrown into the violent underworld of Chinatown gang wars and the merciless nature of those involved before the classic noir protagonist enters the fray with his vigilante determination to end the wars. The dialogue immediately explores the futility of his intentions and contextualizes the world of the story, so audiences are prepared for what to expect. There isn't necessarily too much of a mystery in the film since while Stanley White gets closer to understanding the mysteries in the gang wars, audiences are consistently presented with scenes depicting the antagonists of the story discussing their next decisions. But as a result, we see the impending war between the detective and the gangsters building its story up on both sides which is frequently enough to compensate. Ultimately with its investigation of drug trade and examination of racial issues, Year of the Dragon is an interesting hybrid of Graham Greene's classic novel The Quiet American (1955) and William Friedkin's Best Picture Oscar winner The French Connection (1971).
However, one hole in the writing is the sense that the character development in Year of the Dragon is insufficient. Everybody is some kind of archetype or even a racial stereotype, but the protagonist Stanley White is one who has a lot of strong potential. The story hints at the notion that his determination to combat the Chinatown gang wars is driven by his desire to emerge victorious from a perceived return to the Vietnam War, but there is nothing done with this theme. We don't know the background of the character or the personal struggles he had. On top of that, his deteriorating marriage is played off more as a subplot than for much actual character building. And when he seeks solace in a younger Asian woman much like in The Quiet American, we don't gain any greater understanding of the man's psyche. The man's confusion with race and the wreckage of his past in old age all seems to be contributing factors to this, but understanding it is left to the imagination of viewers. Year of the Dragon forsakes the potential of its characters to explore its concepts, and that can prove rather unfulfilling.
And one of the lesser elements that Year of the Dragon retains from its noir roots is a rather plodding pace. There is consistently a lot more happening in the story which keeps the narrative consistently moving, but there is nevertheless an abundance of talking in conversations that go on for a long time. There is a feeling that the dialogue can prove rather arbitrary at times and the conversations can go on for longer than they've needed to. While Year of the Dragon has some really striking moments, their power can wear off soon after due to the presence of rambling. Some of the most powerful moments in the film are entirely stylish exercises such as the climactic finale, but the succeeding moments of dialogue can take their impact away over time. The worst example of this comes after that finale where there is one more scene in the film which just didn't need to be there, an uplifting final scene which removes the nihilistic drama of the violence that preceded it and concludes the film with the confusingly worded line "You were right and I was wrong. I'd like to be a nice guy. But I just don't know how to be nice". I have no idea what all that means, but I just know the film would be more powerful without that entire scene.
Nevertheless, Year of the Dragon gains a lot of points for its sense of style. Michael Cimino's visionary talents are great in this production as the man manages to capture a very 80's feeling while also retaining the sophistication of a strong neo-noir. The film manages to grasp much the same feeling of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) with the obvious absence of the fantasy themes, and the presence of both actors Dennis Dun and Victor Wong reinforces that. The sound stages the feature was shot on manage to look astoundingly like on-location scenery and are vibrant with colour and oriental art direction while the cinematography manages to capture every detail of it. The shots are intelligently handled as there are strong tracking shots and an appropriate use of varying angles to grap the intense mood of many scenes, and they help to reinforce the intensity of the violent moments. The visual style, violence and diverse soundtrack including some gentle acoustic melodies from David Mansfield all highlight a progressive approach to the neo-noir genre while its setting harkens back to the pinnacle of the genre in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). The soundtrack is very 80's in some scenes to capture the manic energy of the era while it is extremely peaceful and almost melancholic in others to convey the emotional struggles of Stanley White. This occasionally creates a tonal inconsistency by making the general mood of each scene somewhat ambiguous. But there isn't much of a consistent issue with this as music is used sparingly throughout the film while most of the time there is tension developing from the natural drama of the subject matter. And ultimately the soundtrack does prove appropriately atmospheric all in all.
Credit must also be given to the cast, led by the immensely talented Mickey Rourke. My desire to come back and watch Year of the Dragon a second time stemmed heavily from the performance of Mickey Rourke. It wasn't as remarkable as I remembered, but the man is still a solid lead. His character Stanley White has a lot lying beneath him that the script fails to grasp, but the man carries an inherently masculine feeling to him which makes him an ideal neo-noir investigator. But at the same time he is more edgy due to his Jersey roots, making the character an interesting figure. Mickey Rourke maintains strong confidence in the role and dominates the conversations without having to use the highest class of wording, offering audiences a more realistic alternative to the noir protagonist. The actor manages to capture his character's internal struggles through his physicality and draws raw aggression out during the action scenes, leading the story with intense dedication. Mickey Rourke manages to balance both the gentle spirit and serious anger of a damaged human being while keeping a likable charm about him, working with Michael Cimino a second time to deliver a strong effort.
John Lone can also be credited as delivering a strong performance. Being the one actor to earn a Golden Globe nomination for the film, John Lone manages to impeccably capture the ruthless nature of Joey Tai. He carries the sophistication and restraint to keep his intentions very internal, making for an effectively manipulative villain. Yet through the intense stare in his eyes and implicit line delivery, he manages to keep himself consistently charming without breaking out the full extent of his emotional intensity until the film's climax. John Lone's restrained sophistication makes a strong contrast to the more unhinged nature of Stanley White, creating a strong rivalry for the stor.
The aforementioned presence of Dennis Dun and Victor Wong is also refreshing due to their activism in films from the 1980's reinforcing the decade-defining nature of the film. Caroline Kava also brings in a strong effort with her small amount of screen time due to the sheer vulnerability she expresses in her chemistry with Mickey Rourke.
However, the leading performance from Ariane comes with much greater ambivalence. The main reason she is present in the film is as the subject of Stanley White's emotional conflict and as part of the fetishized Asian female stereotype, and in that sense she has both the sex appeal and natural charm to capture the part. But when it comes time for her to display some actual emotion, we see the full limitations of her acting ability. Whenever Ariane shouts, she goes into the most one-dimensional over-the-top melodrama known to all of humanity. She continues this tone of line delivery when she goes into crying fits as well. Ariane has no problem as a background character, but when it comes to actually putting any real change of tone into her character we see that her inexperience prevents her from actually going anywhere.
Year of the Dragon is a relatively slow film without sufficient character development to support its length, but Michael Cimino's brilliant sense of style and Mickey Rourke's engaging lead performance makes for a sufficiently intense neo-noir with a strong use of violence and social commentary.
Michael Cimino was approached many times to helm an adaptation of Robert Daley's novel, but consistently turned the opportunity down. When he finally agreed, Cimino realized he was unable to write and direct in the time allotted; The producers already had an approximate start date for the film. He brought in Oliver Stone, whom Cimino met through his producer and friend Joann Carelli, to help him write the script. Cimino was prompted to seek out Stone after reading, and being impressed by, Stone's (at the time) unproduced Platoon screenplay. Cimino asked Stone to work on Year of the Dragon for a lower-than-normal wage as part of a quid pro quo deal, namely, that Year of the Dragon producer Dino De Laurentiis would provide the funding for Stone to make Platoon. Stone agreed to this deal, although De Laurentiis later reneged on it, forcing Stone to obtain funding for Platoon elsewhere. "With Michael, it's a 24-hour day", said Stone. "He doesn't really sleep ... he's truly an obsessive personality. He's the most Napoleonic director I ever worked with". Cimino did a year and a half of research on the project. While Dino De Laurentiis gave director Cimino final cut in his contract, De Laurentiis also sent Cimino a side letter that said, notwithstanding the contract, he would not have final cut. This information was revealed when the producers of The Sicilian sued Cimino over the length of that film. Because the production was moving so fast, casting began before the script was completed. Originally, Stone and Cimino had either Nick Nolte or Jeff Bridges in mind for the role of Stanley White, but after seeing Mickey Rourke in The Pope of Greenwich Village and working with him on Heaven's Gate, Cimino changed his mind. According to Rourke, the difficulty with playing White was making himself appear 15 years older to suit the character. Cimino drew heavily on the real-life boxing prowess of Rourke. At first, Rourke did not take his physical training seriously, so Cimino hired a Hells Angel to be Rourke's instructor. Rourke has often quoted in many interviews that he loved working with Cimino despite the disapproved reputation he earned himself over the years since his previous box office failures, quoting, "He was a ball of fire. I hadn't seen anyone quite like him". As with Streets of Fire, most of the film was shot not on location but on soundstages in Wilmington, North Carolina, after meticulous research of various locales which could be passed off as Little China and/or the Orient. The sets proved realistic enough to fool even Stanley Kubrick, who attended the movie's premiere. Cimino actually had to convince the Bronx-born Kubrick that the film's exteriors were shot on the DEG backlot, and not on location. Other cities used in filming included New York City, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Thailand, Bangkok and Shangirey. Cimino said he often liked to shoot in different cities, with interiors in one city and exteriors in another. In one scene, Joey Tai and his lawyer walk through a Chinese textile mill, past a guard-rail and into a shoddy apartment building to meet up with two of his assassins. The textile mill was in Bangkok, the guard-rail was in New York and the apartment building was in Wilmington. When one of the script supervisors commented that the scene "wouldn't cut" (edit seamlessly together), Cimino bet her $1,000 that it would. Upon seeing the cut, the script supervisor conceded and Cimino won the bet but refused to take the $1,000. Unlike Heaven's Gate, Cimino was able to bring the film in on time and on budget.
Year of the Dragon received polarizing reviews upon its release in 1985. Vincent Canby wrote for The New York Times: "Year of the Dragon is light years away from being a classic, but then it makes no pretense at being anything more than what it is - an elaborately produced gangster film that isn't boring for a minute, composed of excesses in behavior, language and visual effects that, eventually, exert their own hypnotic effect." Janet Maslin, in contrast, also writing for The New York Times, deplored a lack of "feeling, reason and narrative continuity", under which the actors fared "particularly badly", especially Ariane Koizumi whose role in the movie was "ineffectual". Rex Reed of the New York Post gave Dragon one of its most ecstatic reviews: "Exciting, explosive, daring and adventurous stuff." In his review of Cimino's later film The Sicilian, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Year of the Dragon was "strongly plotted and moved along with power and efficiency." Leonard Maltin gave the film two and a half stars, calling it a "Highly charged, arresting melodrama... but nearly drowns in a sea of excess and self-importance." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker dismissed the film as "hysterical, rabble rousing pulp, the kind that goes over well with subliterate audiences." Members of the Chinese American and Asian American communities protested the film, criticizing the film for its racial stereotyping, widespread xenophobia (especially the use of the derogatory terms "chinks", "slant-eyed", and "yellow niggers"), and sexism. Some groups worried that the film would make Chinatown unsafe and cause an economic downturn in the community. As a result of the controversy, a disclaimer was attached to its opening credits, which read:
"This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian Americans and specifically Chinese American communities. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any association, organization, individual or Chinatown that exists in real life is accidental."
Mariko Tse of the Los Angeles Times was critical of the film and Sheila Benson's earlier positive review: "Cimino's film Year of the Dragon and Sheila Benson's review of it, are travesties of information. Benson implicates her woeful lack of knowledge of any Chinatown by calling the film 'part documentary.' Year of the Dragon is about as much a documentary as is a soft drink commercial." In her negative review, Pauline Kael added, "Year of the Dragon isn't much more xenophobic than The Deer Hunter was, but it's a lot flabbier; the scenes have no tautness, no definition, and so you're more likely to be conscious of the bigotry." Director Cimino responded to the controversy in an interview in Jeune cinéma: "The film was accused of racism, but they didn't pay attention to what people say in the film. It's a film which deals with racism, but it's not a racist film. To deal with this sort of subject, you must inevitably reveal its tendencies. It's the first time that we deal with the marginalization which the Chinese were subject to. On that subject, people know far too little. Americans discover with surprise that the Chinese were excluded from American citizenship up until 1943. They couldn't bring their wives to America. Kwong's speech to Stanley is applauded. For all these reasons, the Chinese love the film. And the journalists' negative reactions are perhaps a shield to conceal these unpleasant facts."
With "The Deer Hunter" and "Heaven's Gate" on Cimino´s CV, both being very strong films with great acting and powerful cinematic vibes, he then went on to make "Year of The Dragon" which is much weaker in my opinion. Just re-saw it after many years and my previous opinion about the film is a bit different today. The weakness is not in the script, that puts a focus on the Chinese triad societies in New York, but rather in the editing, acting at times and the general structure/vibe. This is not one of Mickey Rourke´s top moments, but he show range and intensity as Stanley White. John Lone is equally intense and a good balance to Rourke. While, the lovely Ariane Koizumi is weak in her role as Tracy and she never finds a proper balance in her acting. The script is complex in many ways and the feeling of harsh reality lingers in the film. However, there´s also a feeling of "over the top" within the entire entity of the film, something Cimino normally had an issue with but in another way, but here it´s displayed in many scenes that becomes bombastic despite no need for it. And the direction/editing from Cimino is not top notch, showing a messy end result with long pointless scenes, added scenes that makes no real sense and a pretty poor ending in my opinion.
Yet, it all seems so ordinary. Not entirely boring, yet just a conventional cop drama. The only newish idea is setting it in the Chinese-American community. Ultimately, the plot lets this down.
Cimino's direction is good, though he does rely on a lot of tricks he used in The Deer Hunter. The poignent acoustic guitar soundtrack was very reminiscent of The Deer Hunter's "Cavatina".
Mickey Rourke is not ideal for the role. He comes across as too unorthodox and irrational to be a senior police officer. His delivery is rather cliched, too, reminding one of every vigilante cop ever portrayed.
Disappointing, especially considering the big names involved.