Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Year of the Dragon

Year of the Dragon is a tough cop movie made in 1985. So, just from that one piece of information, you should be able to deduce a few things about it.

It stars a tough guy with a checkered past and a short temper, a sensitive and caring guy capable of bursting into a rage when challenged or confronted. It features a supporting performance from a head-strong, professional and beautiful young woman, who at first clashes with the hero before succombing to his wily sexual charisma. It includes an inappropriate, synth-heavy soundtrack, nudity, staggeringly graphic on-screen violence and a minimum of 100 racial slurs.

I mean all of these things as compliments. Most people recall the 80's as a poor time for popular cinema, and in many ways it was. The desperation for a "box office smash" and the increase in concern about the burgeoning home video market led to less idiosyncratic and personal films, and more hollow blockbusters and shallow star vehicles. Plus, Olivia Newton-John was actively involved in the making of films and music videos.

But there was an art to trashy action films in the 1980's, a real gritty, dark sense of fun to the proceedings. Before every film had to appeal to 13 year olds who buy 20 DVD's a week, studios would churn out appealingly adult, potentially controversial and, you know, fun and exciting action movies. And Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon is among the best of the bunch, a stylish and delightfully sleazy journey through the underground world of corruption and gang violence in New York City's Chinatown.

That's Mickey Rourke as the man in the fedora. He's Captain Stan White, a disgruntled Vietnam Vet and the Most Decorated Cop in All of New York City. His boss has reassigned him to head up the Chinatown Division following a string of very public, very unsettling violent crimes, culminating in the assassination of a notorious crime boss. The woman he's talking to is your gratuitous exotic 80's love interest, in this case pluicky girl reporter Tracy Tzu (played by the mysteriously one-named Ariane, in her one and only major film appearance).

And this is where the film begins to get a bit unbelievable. Tracy Tzu reports for the local NY network evening news show, yet seems to focus exclusively on corruption and violence in Chinatown. Is that really a "beat" in New York City? I would bet that violence in Chinatown comprises less than 5% of the yearly news coverage for a major NY network affiliate.

But believe me, folks, that ain't nothing compared to what this movie has in store. The film was co-scripted by director Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone. Two years prior, Stone wrote one of the greatest scripts of his career, the classic Scarface remake, helmed by Brian Da Palma. I bring that film up because it shares a tone and sensibility with Year of the Dragon.

They are larger-than-life crime epics, spectacles of degredation, villainy and turbulence, and nothing more. They are cartoonish, yes, and free-wheeling, yet still capable of taking the viewer off-guard.

Year of the Dragon is not quite up to the level of Scarface, if only because it lacks that film's sense of scale and grandeur. Da Palma takes the life story of a pathetic, psychotic coke dealer and turns it into a classic American rags-to-riches fable. Cimino takes a more straight-forward approach, turning in a remarkably slick, melancholy police procedural with some terrific action sequences and a cutting lead performance from Mickey Rourke.

Until the end, that is, when his film kind of spirals out of control, straining for the feeling of an epic without ever quite getting there. It's a strong movie that I had a great deal of fun watching, but it's not exactly Scarface. There is, after all, only one Brian Da Palma.

But back to the story. White, following some hard-boiled investigation, discovers that the mastermind behind all the recent violence is the young and ambitious Joey Tai (John Lone), who wants to start a gang war in an attempt to seize power over the Chinese Triads. Lone's an actor I can kind of go either way on. He tends to play the same type of character - a quiet and reserved villain capable of explosive anger and horrific brutality. Sometimes, as in this film, it totally works. Other tiems, like in Alan Rudolph's unimpressive The Moderns or Rush Hour 2...not so much.

The story of these two strong, steely men facing off on the streets of Chinatown eventually does get away from Cimino. His ambition is admirable; rather than simply relate a typical cop story about a guy fighting gangsters in Chinatown, he makes the movie a psychological exploration of Rourke's character and eventually an emotionally-charged tale of violent retribution. And his technical filmmaking abilities are above reproach, particularly some of the impressive, elongated tracking shots that immerse the viewer in the underground world of Chinatown gambling parlors and nightclubs.

But the film does become unhinged by the end, piling on perhaps one too many gory clashes and tragic killings. At 2 hours and 10 minutes, it's desperately in need of some trimming, particularly during the final minutes. Still, there's a great film to be found in here. Rourke is charming and effective in a part that no studio would ever allow a movie star to play today. His character's still bitter about his experiences in the war, he's unstable, he's racist and uncouth, he's an unadulterer. At one point he nearly rapes the female lead, and then later when she really is raped, he doesn't even seem all that concerned about her.

That's great, complex, nuanced stuff, and Rourke pulls it off swimmingly. Even though you recognize that White's a scumbag, you remain involved and committed to seeing him take down the Triads all the same. That sort of empathy for sociopaths and murderers is kind of a hallmark of Stone's career at this point.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, if you love bad acting, a lack of depth, and gratuitous violence, Year of the Dragon is for you. Rourke's character is short of absurd and is almost entirely unlikeable, a fault owed mostly to the poor screenplay. The love interest with the "heroine" Tracy Tzu seems feels almost tacked on, which would not have been an issue had not been for one of the worst ever performances in the history of cinema by Ariane Koizumi. Lone's does display a believable charisma as a young and calculating Chinatown gang boss; sadly, this in no part makes up for the poor screenplay and almost void of style action scenes.