Sunday, February 2, 2014

Year of the Dragon

According to's description of the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon enjoys a high reputation as the token of authority, dignity, honor, and success. People born under the sign of the Dragon are said to be "lively, intellectual, energetic, and excitable. They often can be leaders and try to go for perfection. When they meet with difficulties, they are not discouraged. They are magnanimous, romantic, and sensitive about their reputation. They usually have great ambition and an ingenuous personality. They hate hypocrisy, gossip, and slander. They are not afraid of difficulties but hate to be used or controlled by others."

By that same token, they can also be "arrogant and impatient ... Sometimes, 'dragons' are unable to control their moods very well due to being eccentric, tactless, fiery, intolerant, and unrealistic. They may feel blank about the future. There is no lack of romance in their life over all, but they seldom give true love." I don't know how true this applies in real life, but in Year of the Dragon (1985), those characteristics perfectly describe not one but two central characters whose conflict defines the film: police captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) and Chinese mafioso Joey Tai (John Lone). 

Following an assassination during a parade and other escalating incidents of violence in New York's Chinatown, White is appointed the head of that precinct to bring it under control while Tai, who has been orchestrating the violence, climbs to the head of the Chinese mafia in New York. At the same time White begins cracking down on all the illegal activity in Chinatown, Tai begins expanding his power and influence, and these two very similar men are brought into conflict with each other. Things get dicier when White gets romantically involved with a Chinese-American television reporter (Ariane), using her to bring public pressure on the mafia, and the war between cop and criminal grows dangerously personal.

Year of the Dragon is at its most fascinating when it details the parallels between White and Tai. White, in a gruff, intense performance by Roarke, is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and when he takes over the precinct, his superiors expect him to maintain what they consider an imperfect but necessary truce with the older Chinese establishment in Chinatown. White, demanding they start acting like cops again, instead declares there's a "new marshal" in town; he refuses orders and requests to ease up and even turns down bribes; he has his officers raid gambling houses and sweat shops and goes after anyone he can. He's also a racist, he drives away his wife Connie (Caroline Kava) with his behavior, and he punches out his superior (Ray Barry).

Similarly, Tai, who is played by Lone as smooth, cool, and sophisticated, pushes out the mafia's leader, arguing for the need for someone more aggressive, who's willing to take risks for bigger rewards. He begins pushing back against the Italian mob, refusing to give them a cut of the Chinese profits, and he makes plans to expand the drug trade, going all the way to Thailand to make a deal. And like White, he also runs into problems with the establishment on his end when his bosses say they miss the old, peaceful days and desire a return to the way things used to be done. Tai also has people killed, including allies, when it suits his purpose.

Based on a novel of the same name by Robert Daley and directed by Michael Cimino (who co-wrote the script with Oliver Stone), Year of the Dragon shows the grittier side of Chinatown: the sweatshops where illegal immigrants slave away, the crowded gambling houses that descend into panic when a cop unexpectedly burst in, the seedy apartment where a youth gang hangs out while their gunshot buddies bleed in the next room, and the underground waste pool where a pair of corpses are a found. The movie opens with a Chinese New Year's parade where a hitman uses the festivities as cover to commit murder, leading to the first of three funerals, funerals which are guarded and attended by police and hounded by the opportunistic media. The few places that aren't inherently filthy - such as Harry Yung's (Victor Wong) fancy restaurant and Tracy's chic apartment - become despoiled places, whether by violent thugs with machine guns, police, or both.

Most of the material of Year of the Dragon has been done before - cop on the edge goes after crime boss - but Cimino and Stone pepper the movie with rich detail and depth. For example, White utilizes the services of nuns who can translate Chinese to wiretap on Tai, and the police cadet (Dennis Dun) has a moment of crisis before being sent to work undercover, although his and a few other subplots feel truncated; many of the supporting characters disappear for long stretches but are accounted for by the end. 

The movie is also hit or miss with dialogue. Some of it is inspired and hardboiled ("A fish stinks from the head down." "The Chinese eat the head."), but too much of is exposition or thematic dissertation, particularly from Tracy, who is less of a journalist and more of an obvious chorus who just happens to have an affair with the hero. Sometimes, the movie tells too much instead of just showing.

Still for all its flaws, the film proves a riveting and exciting piece. When you get down its essence, its about two dragons, one a cop and the other a criminal, vying for control and testing each other's power. Neither will back down, driving each other to the brink of destruction.

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