By Tim Pelan
No-one does excess quite like Michael Cimino, director of Heaven’s Gate and The Deer Hunter. And when you factor in a co-writing credit by Oliver Stone and a heyday bruising performance by Mickey Rourke, you get crimeland/cop procedural drama Year of the Dragon. Light the touchpaper and step back, folks, because as the tagline baldly states, “This isn’t the Bronx or Brooklyn. It isn’t even New York. It’s Chinatown, and it’s about to explode.” Cimino’s opening credits are a thundering overture of blood red lettering and pounding drums, an assault on the senses as a Chinese New Year parade snakes through the streets, presaging a literal protection racket assault by young hoodlums on the last Italian hold-out store on the block. Year of the Dragon is often accused, as was The Godfather (by the Italian-American Civil Rights League) of being racist—Cimino sidesteps, arguing that it addresses racism, albeit with the blunt force trauma of a sledgehammer to a nut. Rourke’s character is Police captain and Vietnam vet Stanley White, a spade-calling Polish-American in his forties (Rourke ages up, not altogether convincingly) brought in by his bosses to quell gangland unrest in New York’s Chinatown. The upsurge in violence is the result of jostling behind the scenes by upcoming Triad boss Joey Tai (John Lone), to control the lucrative heroin trade being ferried through the city and district from Thailand’s Golden Triangle. White’s bosses and the corrupt business face “uncles” of Chinatown want to ignore the underlying problems in favor of just keeping the blood off the tourist-filled streets. White, however, sees himself as a crusader, with a more root and branch approach in mind. He blows off concerns and outrage, calling himself the new marshal in town, bulldozing his way into meetings, all but dangling his spurs (he even wears a hat).
“This is America you’re living in and it’s 200 years old, so you better get your clocks fixed,” White smirks, in response to the Uncles’ excusing of age-old secrecy and tolerance for illegal gambling. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch, the most decorated cop on the force, with the requisite troubled home life to boot, often testing the loyalty of his wife, and neglecting her desire for them to try for a family before her biological clock runs out. “Don’t bust my balls, Stanley!” Connie (Caroline Kava) barges at him. It’s no accident I think that Rourke’s character is reimagined as the Polish-American Stanley (the film is based on Robert Daley’s middling Whitebread airport potboiler)—at times the clash of extreme violence and domestic melodrama comes across like the troubled marriage of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront and Michael Winner’s Death Wish. Especially after another row, when a white vest clad Rourke, clutching a beer in the kitchen, ruminates on his failings: Connie cries in the bathroom, just before street thugs sent by Joey Tai slash her throat, and a demented White chases them out the door.
The Peking Opera-trained John Lone cuts a contrasting dash as a quiet, refined, polite figure, rarely losing his cool, His ambitions are big, and so is Cimino’s scope. In one section, Tai visits the Golden Triangle to buy off the local general. As he enters his fiefdom, hundreds of soldiers and drug smugglers line the jungle mountain horizon. Over dinner negotiations, Joey holds aloft a gift—the head of the “motherless fuck” who would come between them making business together. It’s one of the rare times he raises his voice. Back in New York, White assembles his own army. In a bravura tracking shot in the precinct house where the camera follows him around, then turns on a dime to follow him back on his own tracks, he tells his beat cops—no more kickbacks. He’s a pissier version of Kevin Costner’s Elliott Ness. “I give a shit, and I’m gonna make you people give a shit too.”
White fancies himself as philosopher lawman, paradoxically carrying home from Vietnam an almost Buddha-like stillness of mind (“A great man is one who in manhood still keeps the heart of a child.”) whilst railing against the “yellow peril” of the Chinese mafia, a rod for the back of the honest souls he hopes to save this time around. Vietnam is still buzzing around his head like a stain on his country’s soul, his hatred a transference from one war zone to another. “How can anybody care too much?” he asks incredulously of his bosses, fingering his flag lapel pin. Oliver Stone talked to Creative Screenwriting Magazine in their Fall 1986 issue on his collaboration with Cimino:
“I did the best I could with Michael. Michael would talk it and I would write it. I enjoyed the research enormously. We went to Chinatown and had a thousand banquets with gangsters, Chinese gangsters. There was no question we hit a nerve again, like with Scarface. I mean, the Chinese were importing heroin. They did not acknowledge that in American newspapers until a few years later, but we were on the money about that. And, of course, we ran into a wall of criticism from the community again, like the Cubans, that we were making gangsters out of their ethnic pride. So, it was frustrating. It was Michael’s idea that as a trade-off for writing Year of the Dragon, I would take less money, but he would produce Platoon. I had established a very high price with Scarface. That’s not to say I was being offered a lot. I was offered, occasionally… I was not living in LA, but I was offered things like Top Gun. They came to me as a writer, but having done Platoon, I wasn’t going to do Top Gun. It wouldn’t have been my thing. Let’s say I was sort of out there, but I wasn’t where I had been after Midnight Express by any means. So, when Michael said ‘take less money on Dragon and I will produce Platoon at a low budget with you directing it, you can do your own movie,’ that was very generous of him, having come from Deer Hunter and that success. And I said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work. Who cares about Vietnam? It’s over. Apocalypse Now did it, Deer Hunter…’ And he said, ‘No. It’s going to come back.’ Unfortunately, Dino (De Laurentiis) welshed on the deal. He didn’t come through with his end and he even tried to keep the screenplay. I had to sue him, threaten to sue him actually, to get my script back and for him to absorb all the casting and scouting costs in the Philippines.”
The film gives an extraordinary, Steadicam view of a Chinatown few outsiders knew existed, at times recalling the otherworldliness of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. David Mansfield’s score (he collaborated with Cimino on Heaven’s Gate previously) blends Asian influences with string arrangements and harsh diegetic rock, often in the confusing maelstrom of a bustling exotic, urban environment. The film, lensed by Alex Thomson (Excalibur) in 35mm film in Cimino’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, shot in Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, as well as Thailand and New York, with backlot sets in North Carolina recreating Chinatown (they convinced New York native Stanley Kubrick). Victoria’s Empress Hotel doubled as an underground Chinese mung bean factory. White and his men wade knee-deep through the swampy, steamy sub-basement, led to dumped bodies by an elderly worker (Steven Chen), whose skin has barely seen daylight, it seems. He’s disgusted by what goes on above: “Young people, no respect. Steal. Shoot. Kill. Like white man.” Robert Cheveldave, the production manager recalled the shoot. “Somehow there was a miscommunication, and the cleanup crew didn’t come in as quickly as they should. The mung beans just sat there… rotting.” White and his cops drill through heavy steel doors, breaking up illegal gambling dens. A chase by White after a brutal restaurant shooting spree on the backlot recalls Decard pursuing Zhora though Blade Runner‘s crowds: a young Chinese hit-girl in punky get-up and slit skirt crashes through glass and is bumped between jostling traffic in a neon-drenched street, White casually blowing her off her feet and taunting her until assistance arrives.
Days before filming was due to commence at the North Carolina Chinatown sets, a hurricane had blown in and destroyed them. “They said: ‘OK, who can be ready next?’ so we had to pull out all the stops to be ready to start shooting in two weeks,” said Cheveldave, who also hired carpenters to work around the clock on a Chinese restaurant on Victoria’s Hastings Street that was to double as Joey’s office. When he and Cimino later arrived for a locations survey, he was shocked to see that the place had burned down. Scenes cut from one location to another seamlessly—at one point Thai walks through a busy textile mill, past a guard-rail and into a shoddy apartment building where his street hoods are holed up after the bloody shoot-out at a local restaurant. The textile mill was in Bangkok, the guard-rail was in New York and the apartment building was in Wilmington. A script supervisor lost a $1000.00 bet with Cimino that it wouldn’t cut together, but the director refused to collect his winnings. He had no such qualms collecting off his big-shot producer though. Cimino had a wager going with De Laurentiis: if Cimino finished on budget, the producer promised him Joi Thai’s luxurious Mercedes. If not, Cimino would forfeit $50,000 of his salary. “It was four days over schedule, but $130,000 under-budget,” Cheveldave said, so Cimino collected.
“Aristocratic” Mandarin speaking TV journalist Tracy Tzu (Ariane) gets mixed up in White’s messy crusade, trading impartiality for scoops on raids, while he trades the marital bed for her penthouse. He mansplains with a stack of books how he understands that the Chinese railroad workers of the 19th century, for example, embody the unwritten history of America. Chinese were denied U.S. citizenship until 1943, and for generations, constrictive barriers restricted women from emigrating to America from China (sex workers, however, were allowed). With no sense of irony, he sends a jittery Chinese rookie (Dennis Dun) undercover (with the unlikely moniker of Herbert, actually based on an inside man Stone met during his research). Elderly, sardonic nuns from the missions translate his hard-won wiretaps in grotty tenement blocks. But the harder White pushes, the more the violence escalates, the more good people get hurt, and the more he is shut down. The conflict boils over to a personal vendetta between White and Joey Tai, as they both await the latest nighttime drug shipment at the Port Authority. White reverts to a war footing, discarding suit and tie for his veteran’s combat jacket, the combatants running screaming at each other across a bridge, brass flying, shots muffled by the blare of a train’s horn. De Laurentiis insisted on the railway bridge shoot-out, to Stone’s dismay, although it has a certain poetry when one reflects back on the Chinese railway workers White shows Tracy in his textbooks earlier. White is symbolically shot through the palm of one hand, a martyr to his obsession.
In the end, he achieves nothing, and is reduced to disrupting another crime lord’s funeral, while the next generation of trouble looks on. Stone’s original final line of White’s, as he embraces Tracy, was vetoed at some level: “Well, I guess if you fight a war long enough, you end up marrying the enemy.” Altogether, the film is a none too subtle attempt to out-William Friedkin, and his classic, The French Connection. The film failed to perform well, scathingly described by Pauline Kael as “hysterical rabble rousing pulp, the kind that goes over well with sub-literate audiences.” Pulp be damned, it still holds a special place in the hearts of a generation raised on video rentals. “Don’t bust my balls!” is my “Show me the money!”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: Oliver Stone & Michael Cimino’s screenplay for Year of the Dragon [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
The studio loved the movie. In fact, they begged the producer to make it their Christmas movie. And they were right, because they needed time to educate the audience on the subject. Like when ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) was made, nobody in the heartland knew who Lawrence was. But they were educated by the studios so they’d be interested when the movie came out. While our movie was a big hit abroad, and it was very popular in New York and LA, it was a bit soft in the middle of the country. That’s what the studio kept saying, ‘we need time to work that,’ and of course the producers were in such a hurry to make their money back that they shot themselves in the foot. —Michael Cimino (Year of the Dragon audio commentary)
Photographed by Louis Goldman & Chris Helcermanas-Benge © Dino De Laurentiis Company, AMLF, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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