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Year Of The Dragon

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Year Of The Dragon

Starring: Mickey Rourke, John Lone
Director: Michael Cimino
Rated: R
RunTime: 136 Minutes
Release Date: January 1985
Genres: Action, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Ariane, Leonard Termo, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava, Eddie Jones

Review by Dragan Antulov
2 stars out of 4

Some people would hardly believe it, but in the early 1980s Oliver Stone was regarded as anything but left-wing. His scripts were often being accused of promoting ethnic stereotypes, sexism, and in the case of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, even the most questionable right-wing agenda. One of such examples is YEAR OF THE DRAGON, now almost forgotten 1985 gangster epic by Michael Cimino, the very first film that misfortunate director made after his HEAVEN'S GATE fiasco. That movie is now almost forgotten, but in its time it made a serious brouhaha with its alleged racism towards Chinese American community. Naturally, it was Oliver Stone with his screenplay who was named the biggest culprit. On the other hand, very few people then actually bothered to judge this film on its cinematic merit, instead of cheap daytime politics. As soon as THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON went out of the release, it was forgotten, despite being one of the more ambitious and interesting films of the previous decade.

The movie begins in New York, whose quiet and picturesque Chinatown gets shocked by the assassination of its top Triad boss. Following his death, the citizens of Chinatown and neighbouring quarters become targets of a whole series of violent incidents. On the surface, it looks like a escalation of youth gang activity; however, all those attacks are actually part of campaign, cleverly orchestrated by Joey Tai (John Lone), young Triad boss who wants to remove the old guard and become the undisputed leader himself. Unfortunately for Joey, he is not the only ambitious man who wants to break the well-established rules of his community. Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), most decorated policeman in New York, is put in charge of Chinatown. His Vietnam traumas and hatred towards Asian people drives him to start relentless anti-crime crusade with total disregard towards the law and unofficial pact between the police and local community leaders. That brings him in an unavoidable conflict with Joey, which would result in even more bloodbath.

Critics who accuse Cimino and Stone of anti-Asian racism are missing the point, because the way Chinese community is portrayed in YEAR OF THE DRAGON isn't much different from the way some other ethnic or racial communities of America used to be portrayed in crime thrillers. For example, these days hardly any Italian American would be offended by the way Mafia is dealt by Hollywood. Cimino's sin was probably in the fact that he was one of the first directors who used to dig behind the surface and expose the problem. Even more, YEAR OF THE DRAGON didn't just try to show all the sinister reality of crime-ridden Chinese community and its share of the evil that lurks on American street. It actually tried to explain that the Chinese themselves are the greatest victims of their crime lords, and even went further. The root of the problem, according to the characters in the movie, doesn't lie within the community itself; the self-isolation which gave the crime organisations so much power is the direct result of the racism. When the Asian people get shunned and humiliated and denied their fair share of American dream, they have no other choices but to turn to themselves and the old ways, however bad it could be. So, YEAR OF THE DRAGON is basically the anti-racist film.

The anti-racist message was, however, blurred by the heavy use of some police film clich‚s. Like in the 1970s, the hero and chief villain are presented like a total visual opposites of their character alignment. The "good" cop is presented like a racist, wife- cheating redneck pig, who is ready to sacrifice not just himself, but also his friends, family and colleagues in his personal, and very questionable war; Mickey Rourke in one of the strongest performances of his career even gives him some traces of psychosis. The main villain, played by John Lone, on the other hand is handsome, cultivated, charismatic man, who actually cares both for his family and is shown as person capable of compassionate deeds; Stone's script even goes even further and gives Joey Tai opportunity to present himself as a leader whose business-like philosophy might even signal the break with the old tradition and bring his people from the isolation.

Unfortunately, if the movie concentrated on those two characters only, YEAR OF THE DRAGON would be remembered as thought-provoking epic worthy of GODFATHER. But it wasn't meant to be - in order to make Stanley White definitely likeable, out of blue comes the character of Tracy Tzu, Chinese American TV reporter whose father somehow managed to earn fortune in honest way and integrate her daughter into American way of life. For some undetermined reason, Stanley White gets attracted to her and begins questioning his own racist beliefs. Although that would make his character more sympathetic, his metamorphosys doesn't get properly explained, most probably due to the incredibly inept (and "Razzie" awarded) performance of Arianne as his love interest. Things get even more complicated, when the character of Stanley's long suffering wife Connie (Caroline Kava, one of the most underused actresses in today's Hollywood) gets overexposure, together with unnecessary and too direct allusions to Stanley's own immigrant background.

All those many subplots are, on the other hand, excellent opportunity for Cimino to make another film of epic proportions. High budget, today almost unimaginable for the movies that deal with simple "cops and robbers" stories, gave an excellent opportunities for many delicate mass scenes that Cimino likes so much. Some of them - like a meeting with drug-producing rebels in the hills of Burma, funerals, complicated shootouts in public places - are impressive and would remain long in the the viewer's memory. Unfortunately, Cimino didn't care much of the script, and some of those scenes, including many unnecessary subplots and scenes involving side characters, slow the pace of the movie significantly. The uninspiring musical score by David Mansfield is often used on the wrong places and because of it, YEAR OF THE DRAGON sometimes look like a incoherent combination of many different movies. However, despite all those faults, and also because such movies would be hard to make these days, YEAR OF THE DRAGON remains one of those rare Hollywood products - unusual and thought-provoking films.

Copyright © 1998 Dragan Antulov

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