Bullets, blood, and bodies fly, but little rings true.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Is it redundant to say that Mickey Rourke stars in this ultraviolent crime feature? I mean, has Mickey Rourke ever starred in anything that wasn't ultraviolent? Can you see Mickey Rourke in a romantic comedy? I think the closest he ever got were the erotic thrillers "Nine and a Half Weeks" and "Wild Orchid."

Anyway, director Michael Cimino made "Year of the Dragon" in 1985 as a sort of follow-up to his highly successful "The Deer Hunter" of a few years earlier. Unfortunately, there was the financially disastrous "Heaven's Gate" in between, which seemed to have knocked some of the wind out of his sails. Film studios were reluctant to trust him with their budgets from that point on. "Year of the Dragon" suggests none of the political or psychological savvy of "The Deer Hunter," offering mainly violence for violence's sake, instead.

Rourke lives up to his usual hard-ass persona, playing a character straight out of pulp fiction. He's Captain Stanley White, a New York City policeman newly assigned to supervise the city's Chinatown district and bent on cleaning up the crime therein. As Stanley explains it, "I'd like to be a nice guy. I would. I just don't know how to be nice."

Stanley is a racist, a bigot, a male chauvinist, a Neanderthal, and one arrogant son of a gun. He has no friends. No kiddin'. His closest friend from childhood, Louis Bokowski (Ray Barry), is his boss, and they argue and fight the whole picture. His wife Connie (Caroline Kava) is divorcing him because he's never home. And everybody on the force hates him, including the poor cop he's replacing.

The only person to take a liking to him is a beautiful, popular television news reporter, Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi), whom Stanley wants to help him in his crusade to expose the corruption in Chinatown. Tracy becomes his girlfriend for reasons that are never clear, and they have an affair, adding further to the wife's chagrin. Does Tracy feel sorry for Stanley, does she pity his haughty attitude, or is she the only one to see the boyish charm beneath his harsh facade? We don't know. What we do know is that while Stanley does seem to care for her, he also uses her as a pawn to manipulate public opinion as well as a last refuge to assuage his troubled soul.

The villain of the piece is Joey Tai (John Lone), the slimy, ruthless new boss of the Chinatown gangs, a fellow who is not above murdering his way to the top. He is young, smooth, handsome, and polished in the manner of a George Raft in the old WB gangster movies, always immaculately dressed, always cool and calm under pressure. Stanley wants to take him down, and he'll stop at nothing to do it.

The story is based on a novel of the same name by Robert Daley, and the screenplay was written by Cimino and his old friend Oliver Stone, before Stone became as famous as he is today. It's a rather melodramatic plot, and Stanley is straight out of the Wild West. If it's action you're after, you'll get it here. Again and again.

What impressed me most, though, was Cimino's creation of a credible environment. He says on the commentary track that he visited a dozen different Chinatowns in Europe and America to make his sets accurate, right down to the angle of the streets and curbs. The interior of a fancy Chinatown restaurant and several Chinatown funeral processions are spectacular, especially in widescreen. But I wish he'd have settled on one hair color for Stanley. It goes from light gray to dark gray to barely gray from scene to scene. Maybe it was the lighting, but it was annoying.

Most of the rest of the movie didn't impress me much. Rourke's character is the dominant figure throughout the story, and everything hinges on our believing in him or not. I didn't. He charges into every situation like gangbusters, fists and/or guns blazing. I could never buy this precinct captain going out alone every day shaking down mobsters and roughing people up. Nor did I buy his reasoning for such a crusade. He's supposed to be a disillusioned Vietnam vet fighting the war all over again, this time to win. And he sees the cops around him, including his friend Bokowksi, as not caring, always compromising, not trying to win, just as he saw our government's position in Vietnam. It fries him, and with his brain cooked, he goes all-out on his own against everybody's warnings, even the Police Commissioner's and the Mayor's, to straighten up his part of the city.

The tone of "Year of the Dragon" suggests a serious crime drama, yet the execution of the story is so exaggerated it comes off close to a standard comic-book adventure. Bullets, blood, and bodies fly, but little rings true. Stanley is portrayed as the only honest cop in the city. Everybody else either takes bribes or looks the other way, which may or may not be true; but Stanley's gung-ho, Rambo manner of attacking every problem with his brawn instead of his brain gets old fast. He tells his men he wants to disrupt the commerce of Chinatown; he wants chaos. And chaos is what we mostly get in the movie.

The picture quality is excellent, probably as good a transfer as possible from the source material. Thanks to Warner Bros.' newfound commitment to high-bit-rate transfers and their usual anamorphic widescreen, the colors and image definition are first-rate. The screen size is very wide, measuring just short of the movie's original, 2.35:1 theatrical-release aspect ratio. Colors are bright and vivid, black levels are intense, and facial tones are realistically rendered most of the time. A very small degree of grain provides a slightly gritty look to the film, and there are some minor line shimmers here and there. It's nothing worth fretting over.

The movie's stereo soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, but you'd hardly know it. The front-channel separation is very wide; the dynamics are strong; and the frequency extremes, while not being too extended, are adequate. Rear-channel information, however, is at a premium, and I was hard pressed to hear much of anything from the surrounds most of the time. Still, the only cause for minor concern is a touch of hollowness about the sound, possibly the result of the 5.1 processing.

There is really only one bonus item of note on the disc, an audio commentary by director Michael Cimino. Fortunately, it's a commentary worth one's trouble. The director says it's been a long time since he made the film, but he'll tell us what he remembers as best he can. That is plenty good enough and a heck of a lot. Rather than his simply explaining what's going on in each scene, Cimino tells us why and how each scene was shot. More important, he offers a wealth of peripheral information in the process--stories, anecdotes, background, and the like. It's good to see that he has not forsaken his notorious penchant for detail as he recounts how much attention went into the look and feel and authenticity of the film. While you may not agree with him, he makes a fascinating listen.

Among the other extras are thirty-three scene selections (but no chapter insert); a widescreen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
Fans of crime thrillers should enjoy "Year of the Dragon." They may find its relentless, if enigmatic, hero appealing; as well as its nonstop action and its well-defined good guys and bad guys. But for viewers looking to find a plausible story, realistic characters, or any kind of coherent themes, the movie leaves more than a little to be desired.

"Year of the Dragon" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, and profanity, selling points for any action drama.


Film Value