More noise than signal

Year of the Dragon

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

It was five years before anyone wanted to give Cimino another chance in the director’s chair, but it seems Dino De Laurentiis had been eager for Cimino to adapt this novel for some time, and I eventually Cimino agreed. Due to time constraints he convinced Oliver Stone, just off the back of writing Scarface, to help on the condition that De Laurentiis agree to fund and let Stone direct Platoon, which De Laurentiis would later renege on. But we’re talking about events surrounding the film itself again, rather than the film, so let’s refocus.

New Chinatown police captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) has decided to replicate the hard-boiled, no compromise attitude he cultivated elsewhere in the city to one of the most corrupt area in town. The police have an uneasy agreement with the Triad gangs running the usual mix of gambling dens, protection rackets and drug peddling, the police leaving them to their “traditional” role for an easy life.

While the various Triad heads have different ideas on how to respond to this threat, the one that makes his voice heard clearest is the young, ambitious, ruthless Joey Tai (John Lone). He pushes for the gangs to take even greater control, and to start pushing into territory held by the Mafia and other organised crime outfits. White can’t have this, starting an escalating circle of violence that’s all a bit Hard Boiled. As in the John Woo sense, not the Noir sense. Although that’s just as applicable, really.

There’s sub-plots aplenty, from the attempt at infiltrating the Triad with a rookie undercover cop, to White’s infatuation with a Chinese-American reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi) and the strain that puts on his relationship with long-suffering wife Connie (Caroline Kava). There’s plenty of political pressure too, with the mayoral branch presented as being in the pocket of the Triads. There’s a good amount of content here, but it doesn’t feel like it’s merged together particularly coherently.

For example, at one point more or less out of nowhere White launches on a spiel about how Chinese labourers were discriminated against and marginalised during the construction of the railroads. While, unlike the entirety of Heaven’s Gate this is actually historically accurate, it feels shoehorned into the narrative entirely inorganically. There’s not much flow to the film, and it feels like something that’s thrown together rather than crafted.

According to the internet’s arbiter of ultimate truths, Wikipedia, this film is amongst other thing intended as an exploration of ethnicity, racism, and stereotypes. This is presumably the same thing that’s said about Roy “Chubby” Brown, or Andrew “Dice” Clay, or the Ku-Klux Klan. Casual racism and epithets are strewn about this film with gay abandon, which we are apparently to excuse by White’s referring to himself in the same terms also. I guess it going to a defence of “it’s not racist if you just hate everyone”, and, well, nice try, but that doesn’t wash. Perhaps I’m just a bleeding heart, ivory tower liberal, but I rather prefer it when we’re not throwing venom at groups of people. Partially, I suppose, that’s the point of writing it this way – we’re not supposed to have any sympathy for the gangs, after all, but the use of language is not really examined by the film at any point, so it just winds up being another element that sits uncomfortably in the mix of the film.

That’s more time than a minor point deserves, but to be honest I struggle to come up with a great deal of noteworthy points about Year of the Dragon. It’s an entertaining enough watch first time through, although it’s not the sort of film that warrants repeat viewing. Rourke doesn’t give a bad turn, exactly, but he’s a little undermined by playing a character that’s supposed to be fifteen years older than he is, and he gives the impression of a child wearing his fathers’ clothes. Ariane Koizumi as the love interest is one of those rare instances where her Razzie actually seems well-deserved, and as best as I can gather she went back to modelling after this and how she got though a screen test is a mystery to me. The rest of the support is fine, although barely featured – it’s very much a Mickey Rourke vehicle, from the time when such a beast still roamed the lands, and it’s living or dying by his performance. A performance which is, well, fine, I suppose. Good enough, but not a neo-noir classic by any stretch of the imagination.

While it wasn’t commercially successful, in part because of protest from Asian American groups due to the language used and the possible negative effect it would have on tourism if people believed it was a routine occurrence for automatic weapon-based slaughter to be on the menu at Chinese restaurants, it earned mixed but mostly positive reviews, and Cimino managed to bring the project in on time and budget, which must have gone some way to rehabbing his reputation at the studios.