By John H. Foote
The two-star rating is misleading, for that I apologize because there are swatches of true brilliance in Michael Cimino’s crime epic. Cimino? Remember that name?
A questionable Oscar winner for Best Director and Best Picture for The Deer Hunter (1978) and a pariah two years later for bankrupting United Artists with his $44 million dollar western Heaven’s Gate. Now to be clear, Heaven’s Gate was never as terrible as those scathing first reviews indicated, instead we were watching a punishment akin to ancient crucifixion. Cimino lied about The Deer Hunter – he lied about the narrative, he lied about the events within, and horrifically he lied about being in the Marines and serving in Vietnam. All this was found out after the Academy Awards, otherwise the outcome would have been entirely different. He lied, he won awards and praise, he tricked the press, and payback is a bitch. They were lying in wait for him, and while his self-indulgent behaviour on the film was an abomination, his blatant disregard and lack of respect for the studio chiefs pathetic, his film though in trouble was far better than he was given credit for.
Cimino was not crucified for his film, he was crucified for being a megalomaniacal liar who had somehow succeeded.
Getting work after 1980 was tough for him but he scored a gig directing this Oliver Stone screenplay about the Asian gang wars and drug cartels battling for their piece of New York in Chinatown.
After a gruesome killing in broad daylight, command of the crime unit is handed to Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a prematurely grey, tough, obscenely racist detective who will stop at nothing to bring down the drug lords. A Vietnam veteran, at times White must think he is still in the jungles fighting that war, as he seethes with hatred for anyone Asian. To him, they are all gooks.
JOEY TAI/JOHN LONE
At the top of White’s hit list of those to bring down is Joey Tai (John Lone), a sleek young man appointed by the elders as the head of their crime syndicate. Joey is smart, street wise and educated, he understands the perception the Chinese present and attempts to eradicate it, to show the public the many positive attributes of his people while running drugs under their noses. White knows exactly what Joey is all about, and after turning down a lifelong lucrative bribe, Joey declares war on White.
It begins with the murder of White’s wife, a hard-working nurse, portrayed by Caroline Kava who knows all too well her marriage is coming to an end. She suspects, rightly that Stan is cheating, having an affair with a Chinese TV reporter Tracy (Ariane), and she understands Stan is in danger. Blindsided in her home after a fight with Stan, her throat is cut by two of Joey’s hired guns.
This sends Stan into overdrive in bringing Joey down. When Tracy is raped by more henchman, Stan goes full tilt after him, leading to an old fashioned gunfight on a bridge.
When a Mickey Rourke made a triumphant comeback with The Wrestler (2008) many fans, like myself, remembered his great performances in the eighties. Body Heat (1981), Diner (1982), Rumble Fish (1983), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Angel Heart (1987) and many others had elevated Rourke to the best new actors of the decade. He had an intimacy with his audience, a disarming, sweet smile, but the ability to turn nasty, even violent. Comparisons were made to Brando, to early De Niro, Rourke was “it” in the eighties. When it fell apart it happened swiftly, and just like that, he was gone.
His performance in Year of the Dragon is the film’s greatest strength, he is astonishing, lived in, haunted by his past, aware of that fact, it is a magnificent, searing performance. Intense in every frame, his greatest moments in the picture come at his wife’s funeral, where he weeps without apology, quietly demanding a blocked Chinese mourner be let through the barricade. The two men embrace, White holding on for dear life, realizing not all Chinese were criminals, altering his feelings. Though he says next to nothing in these sequences he is shattering, letting us see every raw emotion as he feels it.
John Lone as Joey Tai was a revelation, moving like a panther, dangerous, prone to exploding in violence when necessary. Immaculately dressed and groomed, Joey has a vision for the crime syndicate, and begins to go about making that happen. His long, impossibly hot journey into the jungles where his cocaine is made, he makes no bones about what happens to those who oppose him, dropping the decapitated head of an enemy on the table during a negotiation with growers. Behind the near smug smile, Joey is a killer, a calm, cold, calculating beast in a pristine, designer suit.
Ariane is a complete disaster as Tracy, just a dreadful piece of acting. The former model cannot utter one single line with any truth to it, she brings not a shred of honesty to her performance and not even the gifted Rourke can save the scenes with her. Likewise, the other major female role, Stanley’s wife Connie portrayed by Caroline Kava, is a screeching harpy, hammering away at her husband for a child. Nothing about her suggests he would want anything to do with her, which draws questions about his powerful sequence at her funeral. Clearly Stone and Cimino struggle to create believable women on screen and lack the actresses to do the job.
Where Cimino soars as a filmmaker is in the movies “big” moments, the gunfights in the streets, the sensational sequence upriver to the cocaine farm where Joey makes clear he is indeed running the show, pulling that head out of a bag, making clear his dark intentions. The scenes in the jungle give the film a near epic feel, but all too soon we are back on the streets of New York’s Chinatown, in a different kind of jungle.
As Cimino did in The Deer Hunter he demonizes the Asians, making them monsters rather than actual human beings, soulless killers. His xenophobia, demonstrated in The Deer Hunter once again works against him, although to be fair Oliver Stone did not help the cause with his over the top script. The only Asian character in the film that appears real is Joey Tai, the villain strangely enough.
This would be the final film of any consequence Cimino would create, but contain one of Rourke’s finest, most remarkable performances.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.