March 11, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Mickey Rourke, John Lon, Ariane.
A handsome-plus howler whose saturated colors synch keenly with its Blu-ray presentation, the late Michael Cimino’s violent camp-fest Year of the Dragon remains an ideal culinary companion for the viewing demographic seeking just the right movie to go with its six-pack breakfast while waiting for the repo man to arrive. Of course, with at least one severed head showing up in Panavision atop an array of other yucky homicides, the movie may not wash down sans extra effort.
Still, this 1985 adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel wasn’t just any old project, given its collaborative scripting effort by Cimino and Oliver Stone — an unholy alliance of excess if there ever was one but a likely indicator that on-screen mayhem won’t be in short supply. With a dizzying array of hop-skip-jumping in its locale shooting (New York, Toronto, Bangkok, Wilmington, N.C., and more), most of the story is set in New York’s Chinatown, where hotheaded cop captain Mickey Rourke has just been assigned and organized heroin trade flourishes. More recently, though, “organized” has transitioned into “disarrayed” because a polished youngster (John Lone, always dressed to the hilt) is challenging an army of aged superiors and their prostates for command of the local Chinese triad societies.
Rourke’s own superiors (including the half-predictable lifelong friend “from the neighborhood”) don’t want many boats rocked, and they’re always barking out curbs on his perceived excesses against an office backdrop of their framed family photos and one of then New York Mayor Edward Koch. As a decorated Marine veteran, Rourke thinks all this skittishness over busting heads is akin to America having fought a war in Vietnam it didn’t want to win — a sentiment apparently shared by the late filmmaker himself on a Blu-ray commentary carried over from the old DVD.
Thrown into all this are a long-suffering Rourke wife (Caroline Kava in an impossible nag of a role) and an Asian TV reporter played by onetime model Ariane (aka Ariane Koizumi). The latter took the brunt of critical brickbats that led to Dragon’s nomination for five Razzie Awards — though in the year of Rambo: First Blood Part II, not that many other actors and filmmakers had to look over their shoulders. I will admit here to having seen few movies in my life where the critical tension between “she’s one of the worst actresses I’ve ever seen” and “man, is she hot” was so manifest, but it’s cringeworthy time every time she opens her mouth, and Ariane’s screen career was over with her debut movie, aside from a follow-up appearance in an Abel Ferrara effort. Which probably doesn’t count because even Jan Murray could claim that.
Second-billed Lone aside, nearly every principal’s line reading here sounds as if it could use another re-take, though it’s tough enough getting past what looks like some kind of sore at the bridge of Rourke’s nose, which must have looked great when the film was blown up to 70mm for what I can’t believe were many engagements. (In keeping with such tone-deaf loftiness, Leonard Maltin once gifted me with a souvenir roadshow ticket to one of showings from the L.A. engagement of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate that never was — arguably a pop-culture equal to a photo I once saw of a ticket to the 1964 Yankees-Phillies World Series, printed before the Phillies’ late-season turned into Year of the Collapse and they lost the pennant to an NL team that had Bob Uecker.)
And yet. Dragon does have undeniable narrative drive, which explains why it picked up a cult after a disappointing theatrical run with the aforementioned six-packers who watched it blottoed on VHS — albeit in the same dreadful panning-and-scanning that Cimino bemoans in his voiceover. Over a 2&1/4-hour running time, Dragon is never truly absorbing, but neither is it dull — and even when minor components like writing, performances and smooth direction eluded him, Cimino always had his designer’s eye; the very opening outdoor procession scene has more decor per square inch than any competition coming immediately to mind. Now, I will say that I’m surprised to hear Cimino claim here that Stanley Kubrick himself was amazed at being told that these and other exteriors were shot on a set because (and I remember this from 1985), a set is exactly what it looks like. Not that you could expect New York City to shut down a daytime street for a sequence of this magnitude.
In terms of action to the exclusion of almost everything else, we have shootings, explosions, beheadings, sexual assaults, tourist killings, office fisticuffs and more showing up as if they were controlled by a metronome. My favorite bit — and this one always stuck with me as well from the same 1985 NYC critics’ screening — is a late-in-the-game one where Rourke endangers his life walking into a wall of flame after a car blows up so that he can drag the dead and now totally aflame driver/killer down the street. Now, this is a work ethic.
Though he falls for the Ariane character in one of the more bizarre matchups since Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman made their 45 days of marital hay that was likely more like gravel, Rourke is nothing if not promiscuous in his employment of verbal ethnic slurs here; these launched all kinds of official protests against the movie at the time and likely had an effect on the box office. Cimino, who despite his madman reputation is mostly reasoned and civilized on the disc commentary, convinces in his assertion that this isn’t where his own heart was — and he was still holding a grudge that the studio forced him to overdub what was supposed to be the last line of the picture (which definitely prompted cultural harmony) into a capper that makes no sense.
Apparently, studio execs thought Cimino’s single-liner would be politically incorrect, though a lot of second-graders could easily dispute the point. The real point is that suits will always be suits, and that for all its excesses, Dragon is still more worthy of discussion than Red Sonja, Gymkata, Code Name: Emerald, Fever Pitch, Martin’s Day and most of whatever else carried the MGM banner in 1985. These others sound more akin to bad LSD flashbacks, though I’m more from the generation that flashes back to bad polio shots. By contrast, Cimino’s picture was an ambitious Auteur Antics project with real production values that went off the track and over the cliff — and not, in his case, for the first time.