The Best Movie You Never Saw: Year of the Dragon
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
Vietnam Vet turned cop Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) is assigned to crackdown on crime in Chinatown, New York after the murder of the local crime boss. However, the new boss is the young and ruthless Joey Tai (John Lone), who is an unmovable force to White’s unflinching, rule-breaking, attempts to take him down, leading to a violent and bloody conflict between the two uncompromising men.
Based on the novel by Robert Daley, the screenplay was written by Michael Cimino & Oliver Stone with Cimino taking the director’s seat. The film stars Mickey Rourke as Stanley White, John Lone as Joey Tai, Ariane as Tracy Tzu, Raymond J. Barry as Louis Bukowski, Caroline Kava as Connie White, and Victor Wong as Harry Yung.
Director Michael Cimino is best known for two films: THE DEER HUNTER and HEAVEN’S GATE, both for polar opposite reasons. THE DEER HUNTER won Best Picture and is considered a classic, whereas HEAVEN’S GATE was a box office disaster that nearly ruined his career. However, Cimino has one other film that stands out on his resume and it’s 1985’s YEAR OF THE DRAGON, based on the novel by Robert Daley.
Cimino had been approached multiple times to tackle the novel and refused. After finally cracking, he partnered with Producer Dino De Laurentiis to direct the film, while handing over co-scripting chores to Oliver Stone, who had once approached Cimino to direct MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.
New York sets were constructed in Wilmington, North Carolina where the majority of the film was shot and were so convincing that, at the premiere, Cimino had to convince director Stanley Kubrick that they weren’t real. Watching the film you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Originally, Cimino wanted Nick Nolte or Jeff Bridges for the role of Stanley White, but eventually went with 28-year-old Mickey Rourke after seeing his performance in THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE. Rourke’s hair was dyed to portray the character, which was in his early 40’s.
Cimino also cast fashion model Ariane to portray Tracy Tzu, the reporter that Stan White befriends and courts. It was a fairly risky move, especially when Joan Chen, a proven actress, was also considered for the role. Ariane would go on to receive two Razzie nominations for her part and was never really heard from again when it was over. John Lone was fresh off the Neanderthal flick ICEMAN and was cast as the lead villain, Joey Tai, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination.
Unlike HEAVEN’S GATE, Cimino’s YEAR OF THE DRAGON was shot on time and within budget (and with final cut) and was released on August 16, 1985. The content of the film, particularly its portrayal of New York’s Chinatown, was heavily scrutinized by members of the Chinese American and Asian American communities, which was picked up in the media and trickled into reviews (where it sits at 60% on Rotten Tomatoes), causing a stir of controversy. Whether or not it hurt the film’s box office isn’t completely clear, but it ended up flopping anyway. With a budget of $24 million, YEAR OF THE DRAGON recouped only $18 million.
Since its release and time languishing on video store shelves the film has found new life and appreciation for those that missed it or were curious enough to check out a gangster movie starring Mickey Rourke from the director of THE DEER HUNTER. The extreme violence, flawed characters, and melodramatic flair are something of a bygone era that are rarely present in modern day gangster crime films, at least in Cimino’s drawn-out storytelling style. For many, that’s a tough sell, but for some enthusiasts it’s a remarkable treat to revisit.
"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)
WHY IT’S GREAT:
I call YEAR OF THE DRAGON great, but with caveats. It’s melodramatic as hell, choppy, drawn-out, and full of procedural holes. That said, I still love it, flaws and all, as the many strengths it has outweigh its weaknesses. YEAR OF THE DRAGON is one of my “first year” films; a long list of films I immersed myself in when I awakened my inner film geek and started my journey in getting educated about the different filmmakers, genres, eras, and styles that helped shape film as it progressed into the late 20th Century.
A young Mickey Rourke playing a racist, violent, middle-aged cop (who is also a Vietnam Vet) assigned to cracking down on crime in Chinatown, running head-to-head with the newly appointed crime boss played by John Lone ends up being the perfect match-up for an old-school cop/gangster flick. Director Michael Cimino, for all his shortcomings (long-windedness and melodramatics among them), manages to make the film pop, both with the performances and the visuals. Every shot is rich with atmosphere, soaking you in the location, be it the streets of New York or the backwaters of Thailand. The lighting, the colors, the movement, it’s all carefully orchestrated. Nothing is a happy accident and if you pay attention you’ll notice.
"Dollars are like small fish; difficult to catch, but not to be thrown back except as bait for something bigger." - Joey Tai (John Lone)
Aside from being a great-looking film (I watched this in HD and it is stunning for a 1985 film), YEAR OF THE DRAGON is full of some compelling nuggets of dialogue (much of which feels like Oliver Stone’s influence, although it’s difficult to discern), and some truly shocking, violent moments. The violence is brutal, bloody, and fast. There’s no lead-up, no suspense, it just happens, much as it does in real life. A shop owner gun downed in his store, a gangland attack at a restaurant, or an assassination attempt gone wrong; it all happens quickly and ugly. Some may call the absence of suspense a problem, but I see it as a strength. It’s consistently portrayed that way and at times feels very primal. While it can be rousing, the action isn’t glorified in the same way you’d expect to see in a film like DIRTY HARRY. It feels real and instantaneous.
Rourke plays Captain Stanley White with tremendous strength and flair. Arrogant, bull-headed, unshakeable, and uncompromising, his portrayal is absolutely over-the-top. There is no restraint; he’s the perfect replication of a hard-boiled cop, to the point of stereotypical absurdity, but it works so exceptionally and only because it’s Rourke. It’s a perfectly imperfect performance (say that three times fast) and it works. It has to work, as Rourke carries the majority of the weight and to dismiss his character is to dismiss the film.
"I'm no Italian. I'm a Polack. And I can't be bought." - Stanley White (Mickey Rourke)
John Lone, who has had a relatively moderate, yet respectful career, mirror’s Rourke’s performance as the main villain. He’s a great antagonist and hits the same beats of over-the-top grandstanding that Rourke does, but in a manner that suggests he is someone you would never want to f*ck with. Brash, brazen, and conspiring, his Joey Tai makes for the ideal match to Rourke. They’re like two locomotives heading right for each other, too hard-headed to find a way to share the track.
Ariane, the gamble of the cast, is definitely the weakest link, but it’s not a performance that ruins the film; it just doesn’t elevate it. The relationship between her and Rourke is essential to the plot, but it deserved a better actress. Unfortunately, the female protagonists of the film, both Ariane and Caroline Kava (who plays Rourke’s wife) are coupled with the most melodramatic moments of the film, which are dragged out with a sappy score by David Mansfield, which works well otherwise. Those scenes in particular are ones that beg for the music to be axed altogether, if only to see if the performances could be toned down a bit.
"You were right; I’m was wrong. Sorry. I’d like to be a nice guy. I would. I just don’t know how to be nice." - Stanley White (Mickey Rourke)
While the “crime boss struggle for power and cop who won’t give an inch” formula is familiar (at least, by now), it works for YEAR OF THE DRAGON. In many ways, you almost wish for Rourke and Lone to come to an agreement and let Chinatown live in peace. But, because both men are so similar in their earnestness to best each other you know there will never be a compromise. The only compromise is for one or both of them to die.
While the actual crime solving takes a back seat to lively confrontations and bloody showdowns, the story still manages to keep you engrossed from start to finish. Characters you never expect to die are killed violently and surprisingly, letting you know that anything could happen; and you almost expect it to. There are plenty of loose ends and large chunks left unattended in the film, but the overall impact is felt. It’s a character piece disguised as a cop flick, driven by great performances, particularly from Rourke and Lone, that taps into the man vs. man conflict narrative in textbook fashion, showing not only the strength of their convictions, but the consequences of them as well. Despite all its flaws, there’s much to admire about YEAR OF THE DRAGON, chief among them being that they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
"How can anybody care too much?" - Stanley White (Mickey Rourke)
There are plenty of shocking, violent moments in YEAR OF THE DRAGON, but there’s really nothing better than the finale, which has both Rourke and Lone literally running after each other, guns blazing. It’s the kind of moment that peels back the layers of these two men who have finally reached the point where any and all compromise is over and it simply boils down to the fact that one (or both) of them is going to die. Primal instinct at it’s most raw and fitting, with both men remaining as steadfast, hard-headed, and unwavering down to the last bullet.
Unfortunately, YEAR OF THE DRAGON is not available on blu-ray, just standard definition DVD. Fortunately, the HD digital download (from either Amazon or iTunes) looks great. I’m sure it would look even better with a careful transfer to blu-ray, but for a 1985 film this looks really good in HD and I recommend checking it out digitally or holding out for a blu-ray before enduring a stagnant DVD.
Get the digital version here!
"The only change they asked me to make, which to this day I still find inexplicable because I think it sums up the movie, was to the very last line. At the end of the movie, there's another fight that breaks out on Mott Street, during a funeral parade. Mickey is in the middle of the mêlée, Tracy runs in and picks him up off the ground, they both look like survivors of a war. The camera closes in. If you look closely, you can see that their not saying the line that you're hearing. The last line of the movie was, Stanley looks at her and says, 'Well, I guess if you fight a war long enough, you end up marrying the enemy.' 'Oliver Stone' himself is married to a Vietnamese girl right now. I'm sure you'll see American's with Iraqi women at some point. For reasons that I can't understand, that line was not acceptable, so I took a line from some other place in the movie and I slipped it in and it doesn't make any sense at all. But that line, that sums up the whole movie." - Michael Cimino (on the studio enforced change to the ending)