[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), September 4, 1985]
Year of the Dragon is supposed to be one of those movies people either love or hate. The picture’s been out several weeks now and, while no one seems quite to love it, the hate vote has been pouring in. Spokespersons for the Asian American community have charged director Michael Cimino with grotesquely distorting life in New York’s Chinatown and fostering a sociopolitically retrograde, “Yellow Peril” image of Orientals, American and otherwise; last week, a $100 million class-action suit on behalf of Asian Americans was filed against Cimino, producer Dino de Laurentiis, and the distributor, MGM/UA. Cimino-baiters have restyled the multimillion-dollar production “Dragon’s Gate” in bloodthirsty reference to the director’s studio-busting 1981 misfire Heaven’s Gate. And viewers of every stripe have taken an intense dislike to the movie’s nominal hero, a brutal, obnoxious, foulmouthed, racist, sexist New York cop whose obsession with toppling the new “Godfather” of the Chinese mafia takes a murderous toll among his own intimates.
These reactions are easy to understand. Moreover, the film has a raft of flaws, some of them glaring, that decisively disqualify it as “a good movie.” The script (by Cimino and Oliver Stone) yammers and hammers away at its points rather than, for the most part, allowing them to emerge from the flow of the action with force and complexity. In structural terms, the scenario loses touch with several characters planted early on, then yanks them back out of limbo just in time to fulfill some hasty dramatic function in the closing reels.
Most crucially, Cimino has seriously miscalculated the starpower of Mickey Rourke, who plays antihero Stanley White. To be fair, actor and director are up to something interesting. While working his puckish charm to play White (né Wyczinski) as a Polish leprechaun, Rourke is also committed to portraying the darker side of this pain- and anger-filled man, who hates corruption and turning a blind eye to it as much as he hated losing the war in Vietnam. Rourke falls into the Serious Actor trap of confusing honesty in characterization with making oneself as unattractive as possible—emotionally, behaviorally, even physically. However righteous the intention, in practice this strategy is nearly fatal to the film because Mickey Rourke just doesn’t possess the charisma that sometimes enabled a Brando or a Newman (to name a couple of similarly susceptible artists) to get away with this sort of thing.
Nor can Rourke and the movie get by with a little help from his friends, because Cimino, who assembled such an extraordinary ensemble for The Deer Hunter in 1978, has provided virtually no one else among the good guys to sustain sympathetic interest. The other cops in the field are mostly ciphers, and Ariane, a model making her acting debut as the Chinese-American TV reporter whom White railroads into collaboration and bed, has a face and voice of such limited register that she can only communicate a change of mood or intensity by shouting.
Yet when it comes down to the go-or-don’t-go vote, Year of the Dragon rates an unhesitant thumbs-up at this reviewing stand. The reason is simple: Dragon-size warts and all, the movie laid hold of me and never let go for 2 hours and 20 minutes.
It never occurred to me to wonder, for instance, what correspondences might exist between Cimino’s Chinatown and any real place of the same name. His New York (realized almost entirely at Dino de Laurentiis’s new studios in Wilmington, North Carolina) is obviously a private world of his own imagining, just as the America of The Deer Hunter encompassed a mythic terrain bounded on the east by a piercingly evoked Ohio River Valley mill town and on the west by alpine peaks cinematically grafted from Washington’s Cascade range. Within that world, Cimino, who must be at least as obsessive as his Stanley White, grapples with the same demons that haunt The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. Here again is a first-generation American’s love-hate passion for the Idea of America, which combines a new world of unlimited possibility with a perverse and terrible penchant for reinventing Old World orders of imperial power and corruption. Here, fiercer than ever, is the sharp instinct for the ways frustrated desire and the inability of people to compromise their sovereign individuality can turn a marriage or a love affair into a tiger cage. Finally, here again is the desperate urgency to purge the iniquitous complications of modern American history—the debilitating prosecution of an undeclared, no-win war in the most foreign-seeming of foreign lands, the tacit collaboration between crime and politics in the corporate state—through decisive, violent action.
Lord knows, Cimino doesn’t grapple intelligently, any more than, say, D.W. Griffith did in his still-volatile The Birth of a Nation. But intelligence and artistic validity don’t always go hand in hand. Cimino’s “ideas” are frequently inchoate but rarely lacking in power, and always passionately engaged.
A lot of that engagement occurs at the most elemental level of filmmaking—what one points a camera at, how one points the camera, and the way the results move (and perhaps move an audience) when edited together. Much of the commentary on Year of the Dragon acknowledges that the “action scenes” are stunningly well executed—and then, implicitly or explicitly, dismisses this as “razzledazzle.” That pernicious putdown reflects a fundamental dismissal of motion pictures themselves: The facile inference is that “action scenes” are the safe fallback of an otherwise bankrupt director, as if any random jitter photographed with a moving camera automatically added up to “action,” and to cinema.
Some directors move the camera and it’s strictly from disco; others move the camera and the world turns with it. Every scene in Year of the Dragon is an action scene. Cimino’s images have such weight and mass, the psychology of his characters and the nature of their conflicts are so fused with the visual energy, that the intensity never slackens. One of the most highly charged scenes in the movie consists of nothing more actionful than Stanley White and his opposite number, crimelord Joey Tai (John Lone), sparring verbally at a pleasant conversational level as they amble through Tai’s restaurant, its kitchen, and his backroom office, trading lines, trading screen space, starting a war, while White’s near-estranged wife Connie (an open wound of a performance by Caroline Kava) sits forgotten in the bar.
An isolated moment in an earlier scene is perhaps even more telling in regard to Cimino’s expressive idiosyncrasy. Stanley White’s in an office with his principal sponsor in the police department and old neighborhood chum, Lou Bukowski (Ray Barry). Lou’s giving him grief about his unpopular methods and reminding him he isn’t in Vietnam anymore. White sits with his back to Bukowski, his fingers fiddling at a Marine Corps tiepin and his eyes gazing out the window. Cimino cuts to what he sees: the American Flag, rippling with heavy voluptuousness against an urban sheen of glass and metal. As a symbol, the gesture is heavyhanded beyond belief. But the moment entails something other than one-to-one symbolism. In its almost hallucinatory texture and abstraction, the shot, the cut, is like a movement into White’s soul, a shivery index of how private is his obsession with the mission to clean up Chinatown. It’s a filmmaker’s moment, a filmmaker’s truth. Say what you will about Michael Cimino, the guy is a filmmaker, which is something nine out of ten people making films today are not.
Copyright © 1985 by Richard T. Jameson