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Thirty-four years on, Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon” is still a drag

Updated: Mar 31, 2020


NYPD Capt. Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a Vietnam vet has been assigned to Chinatown controlled by the Chinese triad.


Blu-ray, 1985, R for pervasive violence, gore and language, and nudity/sexuality

Best extra: The commentary with director/co-writer Michael Cimino (by default)

POP QUIZ: “Year of the Dragon” is:

A. “A first-rate cops vs. the mob melodrama that restores Cimino’s reputation as a gifted filmmaker,” according to the Associated Press’ Bob Thomas.

B. “A busy and elaborate film that manages to be inordinately messy [and dissipates] the viewer's interest at every turn,” wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times, adding that “Mr. Cimino's reputation as the man who best exemplifies what can go wrong with big-ego, big-budget filmmaking remains unchallenged.”

Answer: B.

“Year of the Dragon” was Cimino’s first film after “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), and if it isn’t as … exasperating (High-Def Watch is family-friendly), it’s because he pounds you for only two hours and 14 minutes where his epic failure flailed away for nearly three hours and 40.

(1) A couple of gang members case a restaurant before hitting the boss of the Chinese triad. (2) Joey Tai (John Lone, left) and other members of the murdered triad leader’s family march in his funeral procession. (3) TV reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane, model turned actress) tries to get the lowdown from one of NYPD’s finest.

This time, the story’s set in New York’s Chinatown—actually, an impressively detailed set that was built at producer Dino De Laurentiis’ (“La Strada,” “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”) complex in Wilmington, N.C.

When Chinese youth gangs upend the unspoken agreement between the NYPD and Chinese triad about running Chinatown, Capt. Stanley White (Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”) is brought in from Brooklyn. Instead, he targets Joey Tai (John Lone, “The Last Emperor”), son-in-law of the triad’s recently murdered leader, who White, a Vietnam vet with an ax to grind, suspects is orchestrating the bloodbaths. (The triad also has a pact with the mob to stay out of its business.)

That doesn’t sit well with White’s bosses, who want him to maintain the status quo. As if. White, whose marriage is going down in flames, recruits a novice Chinese-American police officer to go undercover and starts an affair with Tracy Tzu (Ariane, “King of New York”), a TV reporter who works the Chinatown beat, that is by turns tempestuous and testy.

Will White and Tai clash? You have to ask?

(1) Victor Wong plays Harry Yung, who takes the reins of the triad after his brother is murdered. (2) White meets with his superior officer Louis Bukowski (Raymond J. Barry) who tells him to restore the status quo. (3&4) Capt. White returns fire as a youth gang terrorizes a Chinatown restaurant ... and the two members who botched the shootout are about to meet a premature end.

“Year of the Dragon,” which Cimino wrote with Oliver Stone (“Platoon”), only sounds promising. Like Cimino’s commentary, the only extra on this addition to Warner’s Archive Collection, it’s tedious and unfocused. Scenes run way past their use-by date, camera shots and editing choices make no sense and it’s beset by incongruities. To wit: The funeral band that drones on and on belongs in New Orleans’ French Quarter, not on Chinatown’s mean streets, and the color of Rourke’s hair changes from scene to scene.

It doesn’t help that this isn’t among Warner’s best efforts. There are moments when the detail stands out, but elsewhere the picture (2.35:1 aspect ratio) goes soft and looks faded. Colors are inconsistent, too. As for the audio, the dialogue gets lost and the score by David Mansfield (“Heaven’s Gate,” “The Apostle”) is so crowded and LOUD that you want to hit mute.

No surprise that there’s little to mine from the commentary, though Cimino does say that he learned more working with Clint Eastwood on “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974) and that he’s not a preacher or teacher, “I’m a reacher.”

“You have to be audacious and believe you can do it, then go for it.”


- Craig Shapiro

(1&2) White starts an affair with TV reporter Tracy Tzu. (3) And apparently she's good at her job. Her Brooklyn apartment has a sweeping view of the New York skyline.


(1&2) The gangs attack White's wife Connie (Caroline Kava)... and the outcome wasn't good. (3) One of the final scenes was filmed in Manhattan. (4) Whit get the draw on Tai in their climactic confrontation.





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