Somewhere in the middle of this overwrought and overwritten gangland shoot-’em-up, there is a decent story. But we’re never quite able to get to it. Michael Cimino’s direction of a screenplay that he cowrote with Oliver Stone is full of action. But it’s built around a narrative that makes little sense.
Year of the Dragon could have done for the Chinese underworld what The Godfather did for the American Mafia—offer a plausible and engrossing explanation of how and why it operates. Instead, we get short speeches from several characters that are part history lesson, part political diatribe. We learn of the ancient culture and customs of the Chinese from several individuals who come in contact—and often clash—with Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a Vietnam vet and the most decorated cop in the city.
The name White is one of several less-than-subtle attempts by Cimino and Stone to make a point about race. The character carries lots of baggage and anti-Asian sentiment from his days in ’Nam—issues that both Stone and Cimino have dealt with much more ably in other movies.
For all his critics and celebrated flops (Heaven’s Gate, anyone?), Cimino did write and direct one of the most moving and definitive Vietnam movies. But while we cared about the characters in The Deer Hunter, we have trouble even getting a fix on the central figures in Year of the Dragon.
White is a crusader out to clean up Chinatown after he is assigned to head the police district there. He is not content to maintain the status quo—an arrangement between the businessmen/gangsters controlling the neighborhood and the police and politicians content to ignore the crime and corruption as long as it doesn’t spill over into nasty headlines and street violence.
But a push by a group of young Chinese gangsters out to replace the “uncles” in charge of the Triads turns into open warfare, with shootings and stabbings in restaurants and revenge killings on the streets. White is told by his superiors to tamp it down, to get things back under control, to work with the old heads to reestablish what has long passed for law and order in Chinatown. He, of course, will have no part of it. Instead, he wants to root out the corruption and lay bare the international heroin trade that the various factions are really fighting over.
Along the way, White manages to insult or denigrate just about everyone. Turning down a bribe offered by young Joey Tai (John Lone)—the emerging new power broker in Chinatown—White says, “I’m not an Italian. I’m a Polack. And I can’t be bought.”
“Slant eyes” and “yellow nigger” are two phrases used to describe Asians in the film and Tony, a hardworking Chinese-American, gets to take a shot at whitey in a rant about the young Chinese punks shooting up his neighborhood.
“Young people, no respect,” he says in halting English. “Steal. Shoot. Kill. Like white man.”
Those kinds of ethnic slurs are rampant in this movie, which attracted strong criticism from Asian-American groups concerned over stereotyping. The arguments were some of the same offered by Italian-American groups protesting films like The Godfather.
Our position has always been on the side of free speech. If you don’t like the movie, or the message, don’t buy a ticket.
The important difference is that The Godfather is classic cinema, while Year of the Dragon falls well short of that standard.
There are plenty of gangland shootings and one beheading. And there’s lots of talk about how the corruption is systemic and so deeply rooted in the culture that it can’t be changed.
“This is not the Bronx or Brooklyn” Tai tells White in a meeting to discuss life on the streets. “It’s not even New York. It’s Chinatown.”
White brings his own distorted sensibilities to the conflict, complaining at one point, “This is Vietnam all over again. Nobody wants to win this thing.”
That’s the kind of simplistic writing that keeps the movie from developing. That and a totally unrealistic romantic subplot that further erodes the film’s credibility. White, his marriage on the rocks, takes up with Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi), a young Asian-American television newswoman whose breathless reporting gives us updates on the gang war that drives the main plot. Koizumi’s stilted delivery and lack of emotion got her a well-deserved Razzie nomination. But she is nice to look at, especially when she is climbing out of a bathtub.
Tzu is repulsed by White, yet ends up in bed with him. White, in turn, claims to despise everything Tzu represents, yet is happy to use her reporting to enhance his standing and further his increasingly rogue investigation.
Both Tzu and White’s wife, Connie (Caroline Kava), pay a price for White’s action. Connie is killed and Tzu is raped.
In the end, White gets Joey Tai and his group, but life in Chinatown goes on.
And in a final scene that makes little sense—but is in keeping with the rest of the movie’s disjointed narrative— White and Tzu end up kissing in the midst of a Chinatown riot sparked by a funeral for one of the bad guys.
HIT: Even though many of the scenes were shot on a sound stage in Wilmington, N.C., Cimino did a good job of re-creating the crowded and often chaotic feeling of the streets of New York City’s Chinatown.
MISS: The convoluted plotline goes in several different directions, but takes us nowhere.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Once again Cimino’s ability to handle furious action set pieces is well to the fore: a shootout in a Chinese restaurant and a battle with two pistol-packing Chinese punkettes put him in the Peckinpah class. The connecting material, however, is by turns muddled, crass and dull, amounting mostly to Stanley’s interminable self-justification.”—Time Out
REALITY CHECK: There’s no way a reporter for a New York television station could be having an affair with the police captain while at the same time reporting on the captain’s crusade to clean up Chinatown. Page Six would go nuts.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Once is enough.
CASTING CALL: Cimino and Stone considered Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges for the role of Stanley White, but Cimino decided on Rourke after working with him in Heaven’s Gate. Cimino also had an uncredited role as a director in The Pope of Greenwich Village, one of Rourke’s best performances.
BEST LINE: “This is America you’re living in and it’s 200 years old, so you better get your clocks fixed,” White tells a group of Chinatown leaders after they try to explain the ancient customs that still dictate the way many Chinese operate in both their businesses and personal lives. The line embodies the anger, frustration and xenophobia that drive White.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Heavy duty and brutal, with guns, knives and explosives.
BODY COUNT: At least twenty-four. The shooting in the restaurant, where two hit men spray the establishment with machine guns and bodies fly, made it difficult to get an exact count. There’s also the beheading. We don’t see it taking place, but we do get to see the head, which Joey Tai pulls out of a sack and presents to an Army general in Thailand he’s trying to impress.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”