The complete and utter failure of director Michael Cimino’s film HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) left a number of bodies in its wake, not the least of whom was Cimino himself. The next five years would be the darkest time of his career– a forced, unwanted sabbatical in which he couldn’t get any films off the ground. He floated noncommittally between various projects like THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. In that time, his biggest success as a director was managing to get hired to helm FOOTLOOSE, only to be fired before production started when his excessive set design demands led studio executives to believe they were making another HEAVEN’S GATE.
Finally, in 1985, Cimino returned to cinemas with a completed picture. Titled YEAR OF THE DRAGON, Cimino collaborated on the script with Oliver Stone, under the supervision of producer Dino De Laurentiis. Set in contemporary New York City, YEAR OF THE DRAGON tells the story of Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a Vietnam veteran and decorated lawman working the city’s Chinatown beat. He comes into conflict with Joey Tai (John Lone), an ambitious young businessman who violently assumes control of the city’s Triad operations. As a shaky ceasefire between the Triads and the police bubbles over into violence, White finds his family drawn into the conflict and his pursuit of Tai becomes a personal vendetta.
This was my first viewing of YEAR OF THE DRAGON, and had I not watched in the context of Cimino’s career, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. In an approach that’s unexpectedly un-Cimino, the film doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is– which is a gritty, pulpy noir film that capitalizes on the 1980’s (and Oliver Stone’s) fascination with Asian culture. In that light, and considering the disaster of Cimino’s previous film, YEAR OF THE DRAGON arguably holds up well. The craft is strong and competent, but there’s something missing in the execution. There seems to be a degree of reserve– Cimino’s direction doesn’t have the same kind of confidence that it used to. It’s akin to a war veteran who walks with a limp: the functionality and drive is still there, but the malady hobbles its operation; a limp that impedes the reaching of its full potential.
Cimino eschews most of his regular collaborators, opting for a creative refreshing both in front of and behind the camera. While Rourke previously appeared in HEAVEN’S GATE, he was so underutilized that he might as well have never been in it. Given the limelight here, Rourke does his best Bruce Willis impersonation as the grizzled, emotionally fractured Stanley White. He’s not exactly a savory protagonist– his experiences in Vietnam led to a head of grey hair and a particularly vocal distaste for Asians. It’s interesting to see him in a pre-boxing career performance, where his face hasn’t been pounded into hamburger. Ultimately, though, it’s a bizarrely eccentric performance that does neither Rourke or Cimino any favors.
As the ruthless Joey Tai, Lone is suave and poised. He’s sophisticated and elegant, but its a facade that hides a ruthless monster who would decapitate a member of his own family– and that’s not a metaphor, he actually does that. The character is a decent villain, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Ariane (no last name is credited to her in the film) plays Tracy Tzu, an ambitious and street-smart television reporter that starts a love affair with the married White. Films in the 80’s and early 90’s seem to have an obsession with the overbearing TV reporter character– April O’ Neill from TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990) being a prime example. Ariane was an unknown when Cimino cast her, and for good reason– she’s quite simply a terrible actress. Her delivery is wooden, hollow, and stilted. Her apartment in the film is awesome, but her physical presence in the film distracts from the main narrative– providing only a half-baked romantic arc for Rourke.
The supporting cast is lackluster. Not that the actors are miscast or deliver bad performances, it’s just their characters don’t have much to do. Caroline Kava plays Connie, Rourke’s screeching harpy of a wife. She’s supposed to only be thirty five in the film, but she looks like she’s closer to fifty. She spends most of the film wallowing around, feeling sorry for herself that her marriage to White is crumbling, and when she’s killed halfway through the film, it had no emotional resonance for me at all. I was actually glad to see her character bow out. Ray Barry shares a couple scenes with Rourke as Louis Bukowski, White’s colleague and closest confidant. However, his character is a stock figure too. He’s just someone for Rourke to bounce lines off of and discourage him from completing his arc. Barry is believable in the role, but his character isn’t given much of a chance to shine.
For the look of the film, Cimino switches up some key elements while retaining the core of his signature visual style. YEAR OF THE DRAGON is Cimino’s first collaboration with new Director of Photography Alex Thompson. Shooting on 35mm film in Cimino’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, they depict a claustrophobic, gritty New York by using wide lenses in tight spaces. While Cimino employs dolly, zoom, and crane shots to add scale to the story, there is much more of a pared-down aesthetic at work. Colors are naturalistic, yet drab– save for the bright pop of reds, which are an appropriate visual motif considering the Chinese imagery that the story requires. The deep focus renders decrepit slums and postmodern penthouses alike with staggering amounts of detail. There are no panoramic mountain vistas to be seen here (save for the film’s scenes set in China), so instead Cimino swaps snow-capped peaks for the gleaming steel towers of Manhattan.
Music is provided by David Mansfield, who previously supplied the score for HEAVEN’S GATE. For YEAR OF THE DRAGON, Mansfield constructs a score that blends Asian influences with string-based compositions not unlike THE DEER HUNTER’s Cavatina. It’s not particularly memorable, but it adheres to Cimino’s preferred musical palette quite well. Cimino also employs a variety of source cues like rock and choral church hymns, as well as those strange synth-based traditional/pop tunes you typically hear in hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants.
By abandoning any pretense of Great Filmmaking (the likes of which sunk HEAVEN’S GATE), Cimino turns in a fairly entertaining (albeit neutered) film. Action is explosive, often appearing out of nowhere (a shooting in a crowded Chinatown club is especially heart-stopping). The pacing charges along, never meandering like it did in Cimino’s previous works (a first time collaboration with editor Francoise Bonnot might be to thank for that). The final shootout is moody and expressionistic– one of the most clever showdowns in recent memory. It’s a sublime moment of cinema and a reminder of the pure talent Cimino holds within himself. Overall, there seems to be a real sense of lessons learned where it counts.
Cimino also finds plenty of opportunity to indulge in his thematic preoccupations. Americana imagery is seen in the form of American flags, and references to railroads– an apt allusion considering Chinese Americans’ own experience in that chapter of history. The immigrant experience in America is front and center. Their spiritual ceremonies– mainly funerals– are worked into the story and rendered in striking detail. Cimino’s fascination with Christian imagery also re-appears here, in the form of Stanley White’s own religious convictions (or lack thereof) in a cathedral during his wife’s funeral. Throughout YEAR OF THE DRAGON, Cimino uses funerals as an effective focal point on which to compare East and West cultures.
YEAR OF THE DRAGON sees Cimino crafting a story set in his own hometown, so it naturally benefits from the tactile sense of place Cimino brings to the film– an ironic notion, considering the majority of the film sees Cimino eschewing his preference for location shoots, and choosing instead to use studio sets and backlots. The set design, courtesy of Production Designer Wolf Kroeger, was apparently so authentic-looking that Stanley Kubrick (who had attended the premiere) did not believe Cimino himself when told that none of the locations actually existed in real life. Little anecdotes like this go a long way towards illustrating Cimino’s unparalleled attention to detail.
Negative criticisms of the film were plenty upon the film’s release, as has become the standard for Cimino’s work. A lot of the controversy centered around his supposedly false and blatantly racist depiction of New York’s Chinatown, and Chinese culture at large. Criticism of this sort helped undermine any shot of success for HEAVEN’S GATE, when it was found Cimino recklessly warped the truth behind historical figures and events entirely into the realm of fiction to suit his narrative. Indeed, there’s many justifications for similar criticism in YEAR OF THE DRAGON, but Cimino contends that the subject matter of his story demanded a degree of damning treatment. It’s not exactly the best defense on his part, and helps explain why he fell out of favor increasingly politically correct world.
All in all, YEAR OF THE DRAGON marks Cimino’s return to filmmaking after five years of exile. By eschewing his grand, operatic pretensions, the back-to-basics approach works to create a modestly effective and lean thriller. That said, the film suffers from a profound hesitancy; a doubt in confidence that impedes the story from realizing its full potential. Whether Cimino exhausted all his remarkable talent in the making of HEAVEN’S GATE remains to be seen, but for the time being, YEAR OF THE DRAGON stands as an underrated film that would be an exceptionally strong effort by most other directors’ standards.
YEAR OF THE DRAGON is currently available on standard definition DVD from Warner Home Video.