Year of the Dragon (1985, Michael Cimino)

Year of the Dragon is going to be so racist it opens with a disclaimer from the distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, basically saying they didn’t realize how racist director Cimino and co-screenwriter Oliver Stone were going to get and they’re sorry. Please enjoy the film.

It came out in 1985. Year of the Dragon was too racist in 1985. Against Asian people. 1985. The disclaimer’s kind of astounding and yet, doesn’t really prepare for the film.

Because it’s about a cop who’s too racist even for the other cops—Mickey Rourke (thirty-three playing thirty-seven to forty—getting assigned to Chinatown to clamp down on gang violence, only it turns out the increase in gang violence is junior gangster John Lone orchestrating a takeover. The takeover thing has to be from the source novel because it makes sense and almost nothing in Dragon makes sense.

Unless you look at it through some very twenty-first century critical lenses; now, a disclaimer of my own. I’m going to pay this film as much respect as it’s due, given the only way Stone and Cimino have to move Rourke’s character—not even character development, just getting his character to be active in the plot—is to make the women in his life suffer. They suffer rape, they suffer murder, their humiliation serves as a stage for Rourke to speak on about how much their suffering affects him. It is a lot. The further Year goes, the more reasons there are not to watch it. Other than a dissection, there isn’t a reason otherwise. Not in the 2021, not after The Wrestler and Rourke finally getting to prove his ability. Because there’s some raw talent in his performance here, but it’s a big swing and a bigger miss.

Now. A plot description, using the most appropriate terms to examine Cimino and Stone’s screenplay. Year of the Dragon is about white guy Chad (Rourke) and an Asian guy Chad (Lone). Rourke is married to a white Becky (Caroline Kava)—from the old neighborhood—but is after a younger Stacy, Asian newscaster Ariane. The newscaster thing is important for a few reasons. First, Ariane’s not even believable as a bad newscaster, much less the up-and-comer she’s apparently supposed to be but they never cover her work because who cares she’s a girl. Second, somewhere in the plot there’s something about Rourke feeding Ariane tips for her reports, only it’s never clear how he’d get the information. Second, Cimino and Stone are going to use the newscaster stuff for exposition through the entire film.

And they do have other ways to dumping exposition. At one point Lone’s bodyguard—who doesn’t appear to be in the credits—does an entire recap of their reason for going to Thailand because it serves absolutely no purpose in the narrative. Unless Stone and Cimino actually thought Lone’s arc was dramatically compelling, which it is not. Though them thinking so might explain a lot.

It’s pretty bad. Like, it’s so bad if Ariane and Rourke had bonded over their love of Chinatown and it ended with a “This is Chinatown, it would’ve been better. Instead, they bond over Rourke’s seduction techniques, which are basically ignoring Ariane or Kava saying no until they stop saying it. Again, no reasons to watch this movie.

Stone and Cimino have some other big macho moments for Rourke and company in the film, like Rourke very obviously suffering from untreated Vietnam-related PTSD (no, man, you don’t get it, see his racism isn’t racism, it’s just applied classical liberalism). But Cimino and Stone don’t believe in PTSD; when concerns about Rourke’s mental status come up—from childhood rival for Kava’s affects Raymond J. Barry, who’s grown up to be a cuck cop boss—they’re dismissed.

Also a car explodes when it crashes.

Year of the Dragon’s bad. It’s very obvious in how it’s bad, like thinking you’re inspecting vegetables for a mold spot only to discover it’s intentionally moldy.

Okay photography from Alex Thomson. They use a too spherical lens to the point if you cropped out the distortion it might actually look better, not a good situation. Really good editing from Françoise Bonnot in the first act, not so much for the other two hours of the movie. Not good David Mansfield music. Cimino’s composition is occasionally decent, but mostly it’s low middling.

Really bad dialogue.

Really bad plotting.

Victor Wong might give the most wholly successful performance as the old guy Lone’s trying to muscle out.

Rourke’s doing his best in a bad part, ditto Lone, ditto Barry, ditto Kava. Ariane’s got the crappiest part—Rourke approaches her because she’s Asian and therefor no one can accuse her station of anti-Asian racism when she runs his stories—and gets an exceptional amount of pointless nude scenes. Cimino doesn’t even pretend. He’s never more artful than her nude silhouette sequences.

So while the film exploits Ariane as an actor and her character in general, Ariane’s still pretty terrible. She exists in the universe where twenty-two year-old newscasters are stars but not star stars. Her amazing apartment isn’t in Manhattan, for instance. Not yet. The apartment appears to have been designed to facilitate the nude shots, which is again more effort than anywhere else in the film gets. Rourke doesn’t even have an office. Most of the transitional dialogue is excuses about him not being at his own police precinct, which is either budgetary or Stone and Cimino just being bad at writing this script.

Dennis Dun is the Asian cop who looks up to Rourke for treating him like a real man, being racist to his face.

Given Rourke’s too racist even for the movie cops, you’d think there’d be some kind of redemption arc. But it’s actually about how no one’s racist enough. Or fascist enough. I skipped the fascist stuff because it’s so insipid.

Year of the Dragon’s like a can of garbage. Some stuff in it used to be good, some stuff in it was never good, some stuff in it should be recycled, but all of its covered in unidentifiable, odious liquid.

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