What, are we just dishing out five star reviews like they’re going out of fashion? It’s just the order the movies come out of the hat, but I had to pause my giddy expectations before re-watching Michael Cimino’s much derided cop thriller from 1985. This is a film I beat the certificate (not yet 18) to see at the time, and plays even better on streaming in 2023. Year of the Dragon was a box-office dud and a critical fiasco at the time of release, but times change, and when this finally popped up on the Freevee app last night, I braved the annoying ads to enjoy a deluxe, widescreen presentation of this underrated classic. Smooshing together mad talents like Cimino, co-writer Oliver Stone and a pre-ruination Mickey Rourke and focusing them on the task of adapting Robert Daley’s novel made for a film decades ahead of its time, so lets delve into grey areas of racism with the violent, dangerous, socially-aware and thematically daring Year of the Dragon.
With Alex Thomson (Excalibur) on cinematographer duties to create an anamorphic look that reflects an epic, super-serious approach, we start with an assassination; in Cimino’s film, all streets in New York’s Chinatown are packed, with tourists, dragons, cops, media and assassins. The Chinese Mafia and ‘offshoots of the Hong Kong triads’ are under investigation by the city’s most decorated cop; Stanley White, a fictional name chosen to hide White’s ethic (Polish) roots. White is played with some elan by Mickey Rourke; like Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s Se7en, Rourke is a little young for this role, but he visibly ages as his investigation and his tactics get murkier. White is a Marine Corp veteran, and has Vietnam experience to draw on, and is what we call today a disruptor; here’s his lets-go-to-work speech to his fellow cops. ‘I want to disrupt the entire commerce of Chinatown. I want chaos. You know, you people are starting to look like the Chicago Cubs. I’m not kidding. You look like you’ve already lost. The world has f____ked you over, so now you don’t give a sh_t. I know. I been there. I been on the job fifteen years. I know all the stories. My heart has been broken a hundred times. I got scar tissue on my soul. Lemme tell you something. I give a sh_t. And I’m gonna make you people give a sh_t.’ Work is an obsession for White, specifically working on the Chinese community; another character accurately notes ‘he’s got a thing for ch_nks’.
White is a problematic protagonist; he’s overtly racist, but we’re meant to see him as deeply flawed and conflicted, like the Lower Manhattan world he inhabits. White certainly does have a thing for news reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane), at the expense of his long suffering wife Connie, played in a blistering set of domestic scenes by the awesome Caroline Kava. Connie’s got a full time job just fixing the washing machine and getting Stanley to take care of himself; he won’t take his vitamins. But Stanley is playing Tracy Tzu as part of a long game to disrupt businesses in Chinatown belonging to gangster Joey Thai (John Lone) ‘If he’s doing anything, he’s doing something’ White intuits to cast doubt about his own methods, but Thai’s drugs and sweatshops gig comes under fierce scrutiny when White’s restaurant date with Tzu turns into a ‘wild west show at the Shanghai Palace’ with Thai’s men shooting up tourists with automatic machine guns and White returning fire from cover with his Colt police revolver, later upgraded to a Desert Eagle Mark I . 357. ‘The gutters will run red with blood,’ White splutters ominously in the aftermath of the slaughter, but is there any justification for White’s grim warning?
‘You should try our exploding lobster!’ Thai says to White, but it’s not just the crustaceans that are popping in this tense scenario. Thai is a businessman with an understandable distrust of the police and he chimes with his day’s Reaganite policy when he expresses his desire for markets to be ‘stable’ ‘There’s no new money coming in’ is Thai’s frustrated conclusion after White’s guerrilla tactics leave a mark. Meanwhile Stone and Cimino have done some research and are loading White’s dialogue with some questionable characterisations of the locals; ‘They drive like their music, right to left…’ or ‘there is no Chinese word for love’. White is a sexist as well as a racist, and there’s no easy redemption despite the amusing detail of White hanging around with white-habited surveillance nuns who can translate obscure dialects to his cauliflower ears. White saves his real venom for Tzu’s friends in the media, as per Stone’s influence; ‘‘You want to know what’s destroying this country? It’s not booze. It’s not drugs. It’s TV. It’s media. It’s people like you. It’s vampires. I hate the way you make your living sticking microphones in people’s faces. You lie every night at 6:00. I hate the way you kill real feelings. I hate everything that you stand for. Most of all, I hate rich kids and I hate this place.’ But if White’s media critique is on the money, his view of women is not; this is how White inspires a briefing of officers to join his cause ‘One last thing. The next cop that I hear about who’s taking money in this precinct, I’m gonna personally bust him in the mouth. Are there any questions?’ A female officer asks. ‘What if it’s a woman?’ to which White draws cheers with his reply ‘She better bend over!’
‘When things aren’t working at home you over-react to things happening on the street,’ is one bit of trenchant analysis that sticks here; Stone and Cimino both never shut up about Vietnam over their entire careers, and White has a neat summation of the on-going agenda as they see it; ‘we lost because they were smarter than us.’ Year of the Dragon was derided for portraying racism and sexism in the police force in an era where sweeping these things under the carpet was the house style. Right now, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and Cimino and Stone do an absolutely fearless job of depicting cop vs gang warfare where there are misconceptions on all sides; White’s attitude may stem from personal prejudice, but he’s also doing a job to enforce modern attitudes over venerable traditions. Year of The Dragon is a tough, rough, abrasive, fearless movie that blows up like the exploding soap dispenser featured in the final shoot-out. It’s a movie that wasn’t taken seriously at the time, but with all kinds of -isms rampaging on social media worldwide today, Stanley White’s struggle with himself and his own personal demons seem more relevant than ever.