Michael Cimino was between a flop and a hard place in 1985.
The acclaimed director had pushed cinematic spectacle to the limit, and the result: Heaven’s Gate (1980), bombed spectacularly with fans and critics. Perhaps even worse than the financial fallout (which contributed to United Artists going bankrupt), however, were the stories of Cimino’s overbearing behavior.
Entire sets were rebuilt on a whim, while an exterior sequence was reportedly halted for half a day until certain clouds cleared the frame. Cimino emerged from this historic folly with the tag of pretentious perfectionist. Hollywood disowned him, while many questioned the validity of his once praised talent. Attempts to direct Footloose (1984) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) fell through, and Cimino would spend a total of five years away from the spotlight.
Year of the Dragon (1985), Cimino’s belated follow-up, looked to be a return to form. Based on Robert Daley’s 1981 novel, the film had the potential to thrill with police action, the kind that could amass a commercial profit while proving the director could still play by the rules of Hollywood. Studios did the same thing to Orson Welles with The Stranger in 1946.
The kicker, as it turned out, was that producer Dino De Laurentiis granted Cimino creative control (a deal later altered in post-production). As a result, Cimino’s final result would prove anything but commercial, and instead allowed him to embark on a swaggering character study complete with violence, controversy, and personal demons.
The film’s plot is familiar turf: New York Captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) is assigned to patrol the enigmatic Chinatown district. Brought in to bash heads and bust local punks, he barges in on the Chinese Triads, informing them that their protection, or “arrangement”, with the NYPD is void. Conflict is instantly sparked between White and Triad Joey Tai (John Lone), and the officer vows to put them out of business. As White proceeds, however, he finds himself unprepared, and gradually dismantles his own life in the process.
On the surface, Dragon looks like any number of other police dramas, from revered precursors, such as Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955), to masterful successors such as Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). While pulling from the same film noir flavors, Cimino distinguishes his work through the element of ethnic resentment. It’s clear that White has a personal bone to pick with Joey, and uses the mantle of officer to make it legal. Joey, initially humored, grows irate and comes to see White as a problematic bigot. Neither man is wrong, neither refute the challenge, and the film benefits from this concise purpose — a strength that lacked in both The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven’s Gate.
While it removed the subtle realism of these films, Cimino’s candidness was not without its underlying power. “You’re not gonna last,” the smarmy mobster rattles off after a bribery attempt, but White’s Vietnam veteran isn’t intending to last. He simply wants to win, or, as he so eloquently puts it: “last long enough to piss on [Tai’s] grave.”
The pursuit, played out through illegal wiretaps and media exposé, echoes a determination not dissimilar to Cimino’s own process. He finds a kindred spirit in White, the bruiser who burns every bridge in sight to achieve victory. White is “the most decorated officer in New York,” a man who craves street combat, and it’s apparent from the first scene with his wife (Caroline Kava) that White has little regard for those closest to him. He is, as Cimino noted in his DVD commentary, a good guy who also happens to be “a real bastard.”
An example of this attitude is White’s treatment of Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi). Though engaging in an affair with the Chinese reporter, White can’t help but dismiss her valid complaints. He accuses her of not wanting to help her own people, even after Tzu is brutally attacked for her Triad coverage. For White, it simply isn’t good enough, and comes to reveal his penchant for pawning blame onto others. Tzu eventually breaks, calling the Captain out for his cruel ways: “You’re selfish, you’re callous, you’re indifferent.” All elements vital to winning a war, but a toxic combination to a man looking for admiration.
These complaints take on a sharp subtext when redirected at Cimino. Frequently attested to as a “selfish filmmaker”, Cimino has drawn his fair share of detractors over the years, with many outright condemning his methods.
Michael Deely, Cimino’s producer on The Deer Hunter, echoed Tzu’s scathing viewpoint in his book Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, writing: “selfishness, in itself, is not necessarily a flaw in a director, unless it swells into ruthless self-indulgence combined with a total disregard for the terms in which the production has been set.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but something that colleagues like Bruce McNall (The Sicilian) and Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter) corroborated through their experiences.
Cimino knew what it felt like to be the brash outcast, and he contorts White to reflect this mood in every frame. It not only feels personal, but in the film’s emotionally naked moments, outright biographical.
On the surface, Stanley White and Cimino have much in common: both native New Yorkers, military personnel (Cimino served as an Army medic for six months in 1962. He was a reserve who was never deployed to Vietnam), and men in their mid-40s. These two certainly fit the mold of “bastard”, yet key sequences within the film show the flip side of their moral coin. For all of White’s berating, whether towards Tzu or rookie cop Herbert Kwong (Dennis Dun), Cimino conveys a closeted compassion. White forces Kwong undercover, where he is eventually murdered, but the abandon with which he lashes out at Joey speaks to a tragic character flaw. White is a man who fails to see the risks until it’s too late, and only after the death of Kwong and his estranged wife can he spot his mistakes. He knows he’s alone, and deserving of this loneliness.
Cimino, a recipient of the same treatment in Hollywood, harps on this note stronger than perhaps any other director would (or could) have. Upon retreating to Tzu’s condo, White’s admittance of not knowing anyone else hits harder than any bullet ever could.
Ironically, the only person Cimino allows White to connect with is Joey Tai. Polar opposites in approach, both men remain fighters, and the climactic shootout is portrayed in almost mythical strokes. Wounded and desperate, White and Joey find themselves on either end of a train-tracked bridge. “Come on!” Joey goads, at long last fed up, and the resulting explosion of bullets against Cimino’s expansive frame is dazzling. White proves the victor, but the militant in him allows a final gesture of honor. He lets Joey commit suicide before the police arrive, thus ending their competition. It bears much in common with Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), though Cimino’s adrenaline charged approach allows it to retain its brutish power.
To be clear, the film is far from perfect. Fashion model Ariane Koizumi is an acting gamble that fails to pay off, while attempts to use White as a bigoted allegory backfired and led many to view the film as racist. Viewed now, much of the ethnic pandering is indeed cringe-worthy, with lines like “how many generations have your people been here?” and constant jabs about ordering spare ribs serving as low points in Oliver Stone’s script.
Likewise, for the occasionally overwrought score, which achieves the Cimino rarity of dating a project to a particular period. Critics like Pauline Kael attacked Cimino’s inability to “develop characters, or how to get any interaction among them,” while New York Times writer Janet Maslin noted his lack of “feeling, reason, and narrative continuity.” The film even managed to notch five Razzie nominations, with Cimino taking home the award for Worst Director.
Looking back, the critique was unavoidable. Cimino knew he would be lambasted by Hollywood, and the added financial failure only affirmed it. It made no difference that he came in on schedule and under budget. The closing scene, set amidst Joey Tai’s funeral, finds a demoted White getting into one last street brawl. Tracy pulls him out, and the two share a surprisingly romantic send off, capped with the line “ Sorry. I’d like to be a nice guy. I would. I just don’t know how to be nice.” Backing this closer with the exception of the final line (Stone’s original line was “If you fight a war long enough, you end up marrying the enemy.” The studio felt such a line would be offensive, and forced Cimino to insert a safer closing statement.), Cimino finds a way to rescue his onscreen counterpart. He couldn’t walk away the victor, ravaged by naysayers, but at least Stanley White could, limping and admirably unfazed. When all else failed, the escapism of the movies was Cimino’s saving grace.
If I had to whittle Year of the Dragon down to a single phrase for reconsideration, it would be White’s own observed thesis: “How can anyone care too much?” The comment is fleeting, but one can easily envision Cimino, silently waiting behind the camera for an answer of his own. He was a filmmaker who cared too much, who broke instead of bent and, for better or worse, refused to compromise. Dragon’s biggest flaw is being a perfect reflection of its filmmaker, and in that, it deserves to be seen as a messy, massive, achievement.