Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 27, 2019)
1n 1978, Michael Cimino directed The Deer Hunter. His second film, it earned a decent box office take and brought home five Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture prize.
In 1980, Cimino directed Heaven’s Gate. His third film, it totally flopped at the box office and received brutal reviews.
An unmitigated failure that nearly bankrupted its studio, Gate also threatened to harpoon Cimino’s career. It took the director five years to emerge from the wreckage, as he finally returned with 1985’s Year of the Dragon.
Various Asian-American gangs rule the roost in New York’s Chinatown, and in general, the cops look the other way. However, NYPD Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) doesn’t agree with the usual routine and he takes it on himself to battle a growing feud in Chinatown.
This leads White up against crime lord Joey Tai (John Lone). Add an affair with Asian-American TV reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane) and a combustible mix results.
Given the manner in which Heaven’s Gate practically ended Cimino’s career, I’d like to report that Dragon reignited his cinematic prospects. However, the film got mixed reviews and didn’t exactly light up the box office.
Some controversies probably didn’t help. Dragon got slammed for its depiction of Asians, a situation that led to this disclaimer at the movie’s head:
“This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian Americans and specifically Chinese American communities. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any association, organization, individual or Chinatown that exists in real life is accidental.”
That’s one of the most laughable disclaimers in the history of disclaimers. In this disc’s commentary, Cimino details how much research he led into various communities, so the notion that any of this connects to real-life only in an “accidental” sense seems ludicrous.
Whatever racism the movie may or may not feature, it comes with one basic sin: boredom. Flabby and meandering, Dragon offers a poor excuse for a crime thriller.
Some of the responsibility lies with the actors. Rourke seems miscast as Stanley, partly due to age, as the then-32-year-old comes across as too young for the long-time cop.
Rourke was old enough to qualify for the Vietnam veteran aspect of Stanley’s past, but it stretches credulity to view him as someone with so many years on the force that he’s the NYPD’s most decorated officer.
Even beyond this issue, Rourke lacks credibility as a cop, mainly because he feels more like a street scumbag than a respected police office. As mentions in his commentary, Cimino intended some of this, as he wanted a story in which “good guy” Stanley feels “bad” while the traditional villain Joey comes across as more respectable.
Whatever goals Cimino desired, this choice doesn’t work. Rourke simply can’t make Stanley seem like a believable character, flawed or not.
At least Rourke fares better than the woefully untalented Ariane. A model prior to 1985, Dragon represented her first film role.
And nearly her last, as Ariane’s pitiful performance rendered her acting career DOA. Wooden, flat and utterly incapable of any kind of humanity onscreen, Ariane threatens to ruin the movie.
Or she would, if there was much movie to ruin. Cimino can’t decide where to focus his attention, so Dragon flits from one domain to another with little fluidity or logic.
The film adapts a 1981 Robert Daley novel, and it feels like it took on the source story in a haphazard manner. It’s like co-screenwriters Cimino and Oliver Stone grabbed random chapters and tossed them together without real consideration of how they connected or flowed.
Between the disjointed story, the lackluster characters and the iffy performances, I can’t find much to like about Dragon. Critics may assail it for racist tendencies, but they don’t need to go that far – bigoted or not, Dragon simply fails as a film.