Year Of The Dragon (1985)

I’ve been meaning to jot down some tribute to this memorable critical and audience misfire but I wanted to honor Bruce Lee before this decidedly misinformed view of Asian-American relations amid a Triad War in New York’s Chinatown. Based on Richard Daley’s more somber novel (which I had actually read long before the film was made since my parents had the hardback), YEAR OF THE DRAGON was scripted by Oliver Stone in his hot screenwriting streak phase and directed by Michael Cimino, his first film since the legendary HEAVEN’S GATE (1979) fiasco (and after my first viewing of a longer cut at LACMA with Vilmos Zigmond, one can make a strong case for its visual tone and certain scenes; it does feel like the last film of the 1970’s in its pitched epic naturalism). Cimino is a strange directorial bird, a screenwriter himself, he doesn’t have enough films under his belt to identify auteurist style, except that he clearly has a gift for mythic widescreen histrionics — as the famed roulette scene in THE DEER HUNTER proved. So Stone and Cimino are a good match, as both excel in extremes, which leads back to YEAR OF THE DRAGON, released in 1985 at the peak of the era’s coke-fueled neon capitalist fervor.

What to say about this bugfuck film? It stars Mickey Rourke as Stanley White, a bigoted Vietnam vet in his late 40’s who dares to take on Joey Tai, the charismatic Triad gangster played with smooth star-making quality by John Lone. White has an affair with a Chinese TV reporter (super-model Ariane in a critically lambasted role) as his Brooklyn home life unravels. There are naturalistic confrontation scenes, oddball comedy bits, wild shootouts in restaurants (the female assassin bouncing between cars is some kind of moment) and a queasy moral tone. Since White is a surface bigot, the audience is forced to choose its distance from him; he also has his prejudices challenged by the other Asian characters, so it’s not a one-sided POV. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA’s Dennis Dunn plays a brave rookie who tells White off in a good scene and by the end of the film, White’s bigotry has been subsumed into his rage at injustice (“How can anybody care too much?” he says in the film’s thematic line). Rourke is weird but great in the film, even with his unforgettable gray streaks, his sleazy cockiness and genuine concern playing well off each other. Cimino shot much of this archetypal New York millieu in North Carolina, astounding even Stanley Kubrick and the film looks fantastic, a shimmering world of pulp light and dark with camera by Alex Thompson.

It’s easy to see why YEAR OF THE DRAGON polarized the crowd; it’s too dark and strange to work as a straight action film. And the accusations of racism and mysogony didn’t help, though Cimino claims there are many Asian fans of the film. He rightly points out that having a character express bigotry is not the same thing as condoning it, and I leave it to the viewer to decide if the film successfully navigates that area. Certainly Rourke’s wooing of the TV reporter by offering her money as if she were a Vietnamese prostitute is totally offensive but in line with his character. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to feel by the mano-y-mano gun duel climax, but Stone and Cimino have put you through some kind of crazed white man’s adventure cautionary tale, shaded by the racial politics of Vietnam and America.

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9 Responses to “Year Of The Dragon (1985)”

  1. “… Stone and Cimino have put you through some kind of crazed white man’s adventure cautionary tale, shaded by the racial politics of Vietnam and America.

    I think you nailed it with this, christian. Yeah, it’s a strange one, alright. Always entertaining, but you do feel like a shower is needed afterward. The charismatic and contrasting leads in Mickey Rourke and John Lone make for quite a pair, though, and are what I enjoy in the film. Fine tribute, my friend. Thanks.

  2. Charley Brady Says:

    Yes, it’s definately the contrast between John Lone and Mickey Rourke that help to make this unforgettable. There’s Lone, still and quietly dangerous, flat eyes staring as Rourke rages enjoyably around him like a bloody force of nature.

    I didn’t get the accusations of racism at all; it just seemed to me to be completely in keeping with the character of White. If I remember right there’s a brief moment when another cop is poking fun at him for changing his name from the original Polish(?) and White whirls around to stare out at the American flag. Weirdly moving.

    “Heaven’s Gate” remains for me a work of sheer genius. If you are able at this stage to shelve all preconceptions of it and be aware that you are in for a massive wallow of a movie trip–AND if you are lucky enough to catch it on the big screen in it’s full version as I’ve been three times over the years– then you are in for a pure visual treat. And watch out for Rourke in a small but commanding part.

    Great trip down Memory Lane, Christian.

    • christian Says:

      In a non-segregated film universe, Lone woulda been a bigger star. I love when the film follows him on his global drug tour. And the contrast between Rourke and him is fun, but not as metaphorically relevant as it could be.

      I forgot about that moment with White and his Polish heritage – I really like the scenes with his wife (well-played by Caroline Kava) even tho a part of me watches the scene and thinks, is she supposed to be older than him? Rourke was 28 playing 45.

      Like I said, when I saw the full version on the big screen I was duly impressed. The film is a sprawling mess but fascinating with some great scenes. I particularly like Christopher Walken.

  3. I agree with the other comments that this is an odd film. Watching it you can certainly feel Stone’s politics blasting through his pulpy prose and I always wondered what Cimino was trying to say with this film. At times, it does seem at odds with itself but in a fascinatnig way. Certainly a one-of-a-kind film that didn’t endear Cimino to the powers that be but I get the feeling he never really cared about that stuff and just wanted to make films his way.

    • christian Says:

      “Watching it you can certainly feel Stone’s politics blasting through his pulpy prose ” – that’s definitely part of its charms. Go read Pauline Kael’s review, she kinda nails what doesn’t work yet doesn’t get what makes it riveting.

      Cimino is a sphinx and it would be great to hear him do a commentary.

  4. leahnzleah Says:

    that german one-sheet is weird. i like the neon dragon in the background, but how many movie posters have the star’s eyes anonymously blacked out under a mask of shadow? (even batman gets his little eye-holes)

    • wait, what the hell? my name thing went mental, talk about overkill. i’m back for like an hour and i’m already fucking stuff up, that’s gotta be some kind of record.

    • christian Says:

      Can’t think off hand of a shaded eyes poster, but those Germans and their Film Noir….

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