“No one remembers in this country. No one remembers anything.” – Stanley White
A commercial and critical debacle on the scale of Heaven’s Gate (1980), which helped topple a Hollywood studio, would be a career killer for most filmmakers but not for Michael Cimino who came roaring back five years later with the controversial adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel Year of the Dragon (1985). Co-written by Oliver Stone, it starred Mickey Rourke as a hard-charging, unrepentant racist and sexist cop that decides to battle organized crime in New York City’s Chinatown.
The film polarized critics, failed to make back its $22 million budgets and angered members of the Chinese American and Asian American communities that blasted it for being racist, sexist and xenophobic but Cimino defended his film by arguing that it dealt with racism and was not actually racist. This did little to quell the controversy, which hurt its box office performance.
Cimino immediately immerses us in the sights and sounds of Chinatown with a cacophonous celebration in the streets filled with people. Amidst this chaos, one of the local crime bosses is killed in broad daylight sparking speculation that a gang war has begun with young punks moving against their elders. This gets the attention of the New York Police Department who install Stanley White (Rourke) as the new police captain of Chinatown.
He immediately adopts a more proactive approach to crime by barging into newly appointed kingpin Harry Yung’s (Victor Wong) office and telling him and his underlings to keep the young gangs under control, laying down the law in a superbly delivered speech:
“You think gambling, extortion, corruption are kosher because it’s a thousand years old? Well, all this thousand years old stuff, it’s a lot of shit to me. This is America you’re livin’ in, it’s 200 years old so you better get your clocks fixed.”
This tactic doesn’t endear him to his superior, Bukowski (Raymond J. Barry) who scoffs at White’s theory that the Chinese gangs, if they go unchecked, will make in-roads into other boroughs. It’s a fascinating fiery battle of wills as White argues that the reason the Chinese gangs don’t get busted for trafficking heroin is because they’re smart. Bukowski dismisses this notion and tells White to go after the youth gangs whom he regards as nothing more than troublemakers.
One memorable exchange has Bukowski tell White, “You’re not in Vietnam here, Stanley,” to which he replies, “There, I never saw the goddamn enemy. Here, they’re right in front of my eyes. They got no place to hide, no jungle.” In some respects, he has a point and in other ways he doesn’t. New York is its own jungle made of concrete and steel that is just as dangerous and unforgiving as the one in Vietnam as White will find out later on.
Cimino provides valuable insight into White’s troubled home life and his turbulent relationship with his wife Connie (Caroline Kava) who wants to have a child; the only problem is he is never around because of his workaholic tendencies. They’ve grown apart and, as a result, he finds himself increasingly attracted to beautiful young Chinese American television reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi). Their initial meet-cute starts off as a history lesson as White attempts to dazzle her with his knowledge of Chinese history and the ills that plague Chinatown, and it culminates in a bloody shoot-out as a brazen youth gang riddle the restaurant they’re in full of bullets.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the Chinese triad societies have their own problems. The youth gang attacks have made them look weak and no new revenues are coming in. It’s time for new leadership and the ambitious Joey Tai (John Lone), a bridge between the gangs and the elders, has a plan for the Chinese mafia to re-exert their influence in Chinatown and beyond thereby setting up an inevitable confrontation between him and White but not before a series of escalating attacks against each other.
Year of the Dragon is a snapshot of the criminal underworld in 1980s Chinatown, showing how things work in a way that is fascinating to watch. Cimino doesn’t pull any punches and presents flawed characters on both sides of the law. This is best exemplified by Mickey Rourke’s obsessed cop. The actor is not afraid to play unlikable characters and White is one for the ages – he’s racist, sexist and manages to piss off just about everyone that he comes in contact with, including his wife who tells him at one point, “You used me up, Stanley and then you burned me down. And I was a rock,” but he is good at his job, which is all he has left. Even that begins to slip through his fingers as his increasingly aggressive tactics burn his bridges within the police department and the Chinese community. It is Rourke’s natural charisma that makes White an interesting character. Watch how the actor works the room when White confronts Harry Yung and how he controls the space, or the scene where he gives a squad of cops a pep talk – it’s a masterclass in acting.
Cimino and Oliver Stone’s screenplay crackles with intensity and is chock-a-block with tough guy dialogue while also acting as a searing expose of the Chinese triads by pitting two strong-willed men against each other, leaving plenty of bodies in their respective wakes. The script goes to great lengths to show how the drug trade works, like how Joey gets his heroin directly from Southeast Asia, bypassing the Italian mafia who has always marginalized them. You certainly feel Stone’s politics blasting through his pulpy prose. Year of the Dragon is the cinematic explosion of Cimino and Stone’s collective ids writ large over every frame of this gritty, visceral opus (with a dash of Sidney Lumet cop procedural for good measure).
Coming off writing the screenplay for Scarface (1983), Oliver Stone was depressed at being unable to get personal films like Platoon (1986) made. He was contacted by filmmaker Michael Cimino who was adapting Robert Daley’s book Year of the Dragon for Dino de Laurentiis. He had read and was impressed with Stone’s script for Platoon and wanted him to co-write the script for Year of the Dragon. Cimino thought that if Stone worked for a lower than usual fee, de Laurentiis might finance Platoon. Stone told him that no one cared about the Vietnam War anymore but Cimino disagreed. Stone remembers, “It was Michael who convinced me that the climate was right for it.”
Stone met with de Laurentiis and he agreed to write Year of the Dragon if the mogul financed Platoon (he later reneged on this agreement with Stone). Cimino and Stone conducted a lot of research for the film, interviewing anybody who would talk to them about gangs and heroin dealing in New York’s Chinatown, but it wasn’t easy. Stone said:
“We got information finally from a dissident gangster group. These were guys who were on the outs and very unhappy. They took us to Atlantic City and showed us the inner workings of the gambling world, and also showed us their side of what was going on in Chinatown.”
This connection was provided by a line producer by the name of Alex Ho who had been working for de Laurentiis for two years. He remembered:
“One time Oliver and Michael wanted to see this gambling house where only Chinese people are allowed to enter. So this policeman who was really nice to us busted one of the gambling joints that night so we could see what it was like…Another night Michael wanted to see what happens when someone is shot with a shotgun, so we spent the whole night sitting in an ambulance.”
For the protagonist, Stone suggested changing his name to Stanley White, after a police detective friend he knew from another project. White gave them permission to use his name and a lot of his “eccentricities.” Stone, however, was not happy with how de Laurentiis interfered with the ending of the film. While White had two women in his life, so did Joey Tai – one in Hong Kong and one in New York. Stone said:
“In a moment of sentimentality, he brings the Chinese wife to the States and the Mickey Rourke character finds out about it. So, after he can’t get him legally with a bust or a wiretap, he busts him for bigamy.”
De Laurentiis made Cimino change the ending to a more conventional shoot-out, which Stone did not like. The filmmaker said that Cimino also ran into problems casting the role of Stanley White:
“We went to several people, but they didn’t want the part. In some cases, it was because of Michael’s reputation after Heaven’s Gate, but also most actors didn’t care for the character. He’s a right-winger. He’s a racist. That is the way the character was conceived and written. He’s sexist on top of it. You had to have a big pair of balls to play that part.”
Cimino shot on location in North Carolina, recreating nearly all of the New York setting there at great expense. Ho remembered:
“Like there were two Mercedes that were to be in crashes. There was a 380 and a 450, and I said, ‘Could I buy a 380 and then just change the number to 450 for the crash scene?’ And Michael said, ‘No.’ That was like ten or fifteen thousand dollars.”
Not surprisingly, Year of the Dragon divided critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The actors fare particularly badly under such circumstances. Mr. Rourke, who almost always generates a relaxed, knowing magnetism, is entirely lost in the underwritten role of a middle-aged policeman.” The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “Year of the Dragon has an arrogant, electric energy that dares you to look away from the screen for an instant. Do so and you miss a furious piece of action that has bubbled up, seemingly out of nowhere.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, “Cimino might make a good movie if he were forced to shoot someone else’s script, and banned from hiring extras, but he’ll never do it – he’s an auteur, and our best example of auteurism’s limits.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “For all of its excesses, Year of the Dragon is a solid entertainment. It marks director Cimino as a man to watch now not for his spend-thrift ways but for the size of his vision.”
Year of the Dragon opened in 982 theaters on August 16, 1985 and was met with harsh criticism and protests by the Asian community in Hollywood, New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston. They objected to the racist and sexist attitudes expressed in the film. Many felt that it perpetuated Asian stereotypes. Judy Chu, an instructor of Asian-American studies at UCLA, said that the film “only reinforces the stereotype that Asians have no value for love and no sense of integrity…Even the newswoman is a stereotype. She is a new version of an old stereotype of the Geisha girl.” Even Richard Daley, the author of the novel, which it was based on, became an outspoken critic of the film: “When I read the script, I wanted to cry. I thought about taking out full-page ads…Dissociating myself from Cimino’s work. It is offensive to anybody.” Eventually, a disclaimer was placed before the film.
Stone dismissed criticism of the portrayal of Chinese people in the film: “The thing critics never realized is that the Chinese were at that time the biggest importers of heroin in this country. They outdid the Mafia, but nobody knew about it because they did it quietly.” Cimino also addressed the controversy, saying, “The film was accused of racism, but they didn’t pay attention to what people say in the film. It’s a film which deals with racism, but it’s not a racist film. To deal with this sort of subject, you must inevitably reveal its tendencies.”
While Year of the Dragon features several racist characters it isn’t a racist film. Cimino isn’t afraid to acknowledge the existence of such people and those kinds of ugly sentiments. He lets many of the Chinese characters speak in their native tongues and espouse their history in America, shedding light on decades of horrible treatment. If anything, Cimino’s film is a savage indictment of such attitudes showing how they lead down a destructive path.
Instead of playing it safe in the hopes of getting back in the good graces of Hollywood, Cimino stayed true to his artistic sensibilities and delivered a hard-hitting crime drama that asks difficult questions and offers no easy answers. Year of the Dragon is an ugly film that forces you to engage it on its own terms and there’s a refreshing honesty to this approach. It flew in the face of the rah-rah, America is great sentiments of movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rocky IV (1985), and Top Gun (1986). Cimino’s film exposes an America that is rotten to the core and built on a foundation of thousands upon thousands of bodies – people that died anonymously. Is it any wonder it failed at the box office? You don’t come out of Year of the Dragon feeling good but sometimes that’s okay, too. Sure, White got his man and got the girl at the end, but it’s a hollow victory at best and one could argue that it didn’t change much. At least he tried and Cimino admires the attempt.
Camy, Gerard; Viviani, Christian. “Entretien avec Cimino.” Jeune cinema. December/January 1985/1986.
Horn, John. “MGM/UA May Insert Dragon Disclaimer.” Los Angeles Times. August 28, 1985.
Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.