2019 Film Essays

Hate and War: Michael Cimino’s ‘Year of the Dragon’

To reckon with the cinema of Michael Cimino is to wade knee-deep into failure. After directing The Deer Hunter (1978), which won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture, and became one of the first films to directly deal with the subject of American involvement in Vietnam, Cimino immediately wasted his newfound cinematic capital with 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, a sprawling Western epic that ran wildly over budget, extended well past its shooting schedule, alienated critics and confounded the few members of the audience who bothered to see it. Though its reputation has recovered recently, Heaven’s Gate became a signifier of the end of the New Hollywood period, the ultimate example of directorial profligacy run amok, with Cimino the sacrifice the film industry demanded in exchange for his perceived sins. After its catastrophic commercial failure, Cimino withdrew, not making a film for five years. When he did return, it was with 1985’s Year of the Dragon, a cop thriller that was also attacked mercilessly by the American critical community. In a profound contrast to the success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s film was nominated for five Razzies, the dubious honor bestowed upon Hollywood’s so-called Worst Pictures of the year. To say that Cimino’s reputation never recovered from the collapse of Heaven’s Gate is generally true; the result has been that his work has been largely ignored, with even The Deer Hunter coming in for retrospective criticism that validates the arguments made against it at the time, especially for its portrayal of the Vietnamese, who some saw as brutal, racist caricatures. The specter of Vietnam — and his own success with The Deer Hunter — hangs over Cimino’s attempt at a comeback; Year of the Dragon is an unfairly maligned, deeply penetrating work about the nature of failure told through the perspective of a destructive, obsessive anti-hero, a police captain fighting the Vietnam War all over again on the streets of New York City’s Chinatown.

Cimino’s co-wrote Year of the Dragon with Oliver Stone, one year before his own epic take on the Vietnam War, Platoon (1986), earned the accolades previously awarded to The Deer Hunter. Its ostensible hero is Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), a Vietnam veteran hell-bent on stopping the illegal drug trade and violence that plague Chinatown. Rourke, who was 33 at the time of the film’s release, plays a character much older than himself, wearing a shock of gray-white hair that emphasizes his slide into middle age but also underlines his surname, which dialogue reveals is an Americanized, sanitized scrubbing of his own Polish identity. White’s manic pursuit of newly ascendant crime boss Joey Tai (John Lone) costs him everything: an undercover cop of Chinese descent, Herbert (Dennis Dun), is killed working for Stanley; his wife Connie (Caroline Kava) is murdered right in front of him while trying to end their marriage; a Chinese-American news reporter, Tracy Tzu (Ariane), with whom Stanley begins an affair, is raped and threatened by Tai’s goons. Year of the Dragon is a film steeped in failure. By its conclusion, though Tai is dead, Stanley has achieved little and learned almost nothing.

This kind of focus on failure is inimical to the films of New Hollywood directors, even those released after the era technically comes to a close. Year of the Dragon’s setting inevitably recalls Roman Polanski’s iconic Chinatown (1974), which used the neighborhood to stage its unforgettable conclusion, wherein the private detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) sees justice undone — the villain Noah Cross (John Huston) not only goes unpunished, but captures the granddaughter/daughter he fathered out of an incestuous, abusive relationship with his daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who lies slumped over in the driver’s seat of her car with a bullet hole where her eye used to be. As the totally defeated Gittes looks on in confusion and horror, one of his partners mutters the iconic line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” before leading him off into the night. The implication (what else did you expect?’) betrays the era’s affinity for cynicism, as though the entire story of corruption in the United States were reducible to the simple poetry of one word, a signifier of a neighborhood where everything that can go wrong will go wrong. In this formulation, “Chinatown” has little, if anything, to do with the racial makeup of its residents. Chinatown, in Polanski’s film, is a state of mind that assumes the unassailability of corrupt power structures and the inevitability of the individual’s failure to stop them from continuing their oppressive work. In Year of the Dragon, Cimino picks up the same baton, using the shorthand setting with its primer for corruption, violence and desperate failure to explore his central character’s outrageous defects of character, chief among them an inability to recover from loss in Vietnam.

It is hard to say that Stanley suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder without fuller information from the narrative. Though a number of the other films of the era that feature Vietnam veterans, including Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), can more convincingly be read in that vein because of their overt exploration of their characters’ physical and psychological wounds, White’s problem mostly stems from his preoccupation with losing. Year of the Dragon does align with Taxi Driver in one crucial respect; White shares the racism that drives Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), as each man is compelled to purge the city of those they see as undesirable, representative of crime and violence. Though Scorsese’s camera lingers over black men with numerous tracking shots, rendered in slow motion to subsume the spectator’s experience into Travis’s blinkered perspective, Cimino does not so overtly signal fusion between his film’s formal elements and White’s point of view. White’s predilection for spoken racism — something Travis mostly keeps to himself — likely contributed to the criticism leveled against Cimino’s film, along with the Chinatown setting and its numerous characters who inhabit the underworld. Many of the film’s Chinese characters are gangsters who commit brutal crimes, use rape as a weapon, kill civilians and spray machine gun fire into busy restaurants with impunity. The Blu-ray release of the film even includes a title card that precedes the film, almost apologizing for what is about to come, insisting that Year of the Dragon is not intended to portray all Chinese people as criminals or Chinatown as an irredeemable sewer full of violent brutes. Nearly 35 years on from the original release of the film, it still makes people uncomfortable, leading to an apologetic epigraph that seems at cross-purposes with the loving attention paid to the high definition remaster that looks and sounds quite fantastic on a big television with the volume turned up to room-shaking levels.

Critics and audiences alike struggle with films that feature racist characters like Stanley White. In telling the story from that character’s point of view, does the film endorse his racism? Part of this difficulty emerges from complicated terrain: the theory goes that in an industry where marginalized voices have routinely been subject to stereotypical representation (if seen on screen at all), depictions of racial minorities ought to be “positive” to correct audiences’ wrong impressions, many of which have led to harmful extensions of those stereotypes into everyday life. This is a perfectly defensible position, and an attractive argument to make in the context of blackface, yellowface and any number of harmful depictions of queer people on screen throughout Hollywood’s exceedingly embarrassing history on issues of minority representation.

The good intentions of this argument are honorable and in many cases, exactly appropriate, but they are often irreconcilable with works of art that intend to wrestle with complicated issues by portraying, but not necessarily advocating for, ugly aspects of humanity. In addition, those who make this case tend to underestimate the ability of audiences to discern between individual representations of characters and harmful stereotypes of entire groups. Does anyone really watch a film like Year of the Dragon, with all of its violence and brutality, and say to themselves, “Isn’t that just like the Chinese?” Surely some members of the audience see it that way, but anyone who does likely brought those attitudes with them — changing those deeply ingrained perceptions may be a bridge too far for any film, no matter the character of its representation.

Another complication emerges from Cimino’s slippery maneuvering between sincerity and irony. Though it might be tempting to dismiss his inconsistent application of each mode as weak command of tone, he is up to something else. Cimino’s work deeply engages with American myths by first making an honest attempt to inhabit them, and then staging events and character beats that twist away from the dominant cultural narrative. His first feature, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), stars Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges in the title roles, respectively, monikers that communicate the characters’ larger-than-life status. Thunderbolt is the strong, silent criminal, the honorable thief with a sense of fairness. Lightfoot is a cocky kid who wants to be a part of the gang by proving himself worthy in the eyes of the other men. Those are traditional American crime film archetypes, which Cimino subsequently undermines by amplifying homoerotic tensions between the two central characters and encouraging gender-role slippage by putting Lightfoot in a dress and wig in a crucial part of the film’s climactic heist. Similarly, The Deer Hunter explores the nobility of its lone hero Michael (Robert De Niro), who proves to be as capable of hunting men in Vietnam as he is hunting deer in the mountains outside his Pennsylvania steel town; it undermines that nobility through its implementation of a counternarrative where Michael is desperately haunted by failure. He is unable to face seeing his old friends at a “Welcome Home” party, standing outside in the dark until they all leave, despondent. He only reluctantly visits his friend Steven (John Savage), who was wounded in combat and now resides in a veterans’ hospital, partially paralyzed and forgotten. Most of all, he feels the pull of loss over leaving his best friend Nick (Christopher Walken) in Vietnam, playing Russian Roulette in a Saigon warehouse for money, repeatedly restaging the trauma he suffered in the prisoner of war camp they shared. Michael returns to Vietnam to find Nick and bring him home, but Nick doesn’t recognize him; when he finally does, Nick pulls the trigger and dies, with Michael left to bring him home for the funeral. In Heaven’s Gate, Cimino is after something grander, taking on the entire mythic American story as forged by the cinema in Hollywood Westerns. Sweeping shots of a bustling frontier town and majestic natural scenery place his film in the legacy of John Ford, whose films use the Western genre to build (and sometimes interrogate) the American ideal. The brutality and violence that characterizes much of the film’s climactic battle, in which a number of the poor townspeople and several admirable heroes are savagely killed by mercenaries, tell a much different American story, but one no less exaggerated in its depiction of a historical event (the Johnson County War) that saw little real bloodshed. American myths are ripe for deconstruction in Cimino’s films; he draws upon those mythic signifiers and redeploys them for critical ends, often distorting them into funhouse mirror versions of the country’s foundational ideals and principles.

Cimino uses a number of techniques to first establish and then attack American mythology in Year of the Dragon. Most importantly, he localizes the experience of the film in Stanley White’s obsessive, troubled psychology. Year of the Dragon is not an exercise in extreme point of view identification, as Taxi Driver is; a number of scenes privilege the points of view of either Joey Tai or Tracy Tzu, one of Cimino’s reflexive tendencies towards epic, broad-scope storytelling. In the case of his protagonist, Cimino introduces him in mythic terms. After a prologue that stages the murder of a local Chinatown crime boss, Cimino cuts to the slain gangster’s street funeral procession, which is attended by a throng of local residents. After Cimino shows yet another murder – this time a slickly dressed Chinese gangster kills an Italian man who owns a candy shop on the street where the funeral is taking place –– he cuts to a shot behind a man walking towards the funeral procession, dressed in a trench coat and a brown, short-brimmed fedora. His sudden appearance has the quality of myth; it is as though he has materialized, summoned by the outbreak of violence like an avenging angel. Delaying White’s introduction — he walks anonymously through the crowd, unknown to the residents watching the funeral — preserves an air of mystery about the character while simultaneously marking him as the unquestioned protagonist, the noble hero called forth to clean up the city, in classic police thriller fashion. When he finally introduces himself to Tracy, who is covering the funeral for television, he is a confident man who carries the weight of belief in his own authority. Rourke’s mid-1980s charm makes every line lushly romantic, his voice purring out his superiority. “Stick around and you might learn something,” he tells her. The Great White Hero has come to teach the Chinese people a thing or two about Chinatown.

From a spectator’s standpoint, it is easy to fall into a kind of identification trap after an introduction like this; Rourke is easy to like in the role (in the early-going at least), and the way this scene plays out aligns White with the kind of “rogue cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results” featured in the Dirty Harry films; vigilante justice in the Death Wish series also figures prominently, especially when delivered upon anonymous racial minorities. Both Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) and Death Wish’s Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) are classic American archetypes who date back to the do-it-yourself lineage of the Western hero who employs violence as a necessary, civilizing tool. Cimino contributed to the screenplay for Magnum Force (1973), along with notorious gun aficionado John Milius, so he knows a thing or two about “rogue cops who don’t play by the rules but get results.” So, does Year of the Dragon walk in those films’ footsteps in endorsing the chaotic violence unleashed by its vigilante? In the film’s opening moments, Cimino encourages precisely that kind of identification before beginning the process of undoing it through wildly exaggerating White’s devotion to his crusade.

In his first interaction with Tracy and his subsequent chastisement of a local police officer, White demonstrates his arrogance, but the film suggests he has earned the right to it by virtue of his long and decorated career. Almost immediately, however, Cimino begins to undermine the character by overdramatizing his obsession with bringing law and order to Chinatown. He uses anamorphic widescreen lenses that distort the edges of the frame, not just in the film’s numerous action sequences but even in fairly traditional scenes taking place in offices and restaurants, which lends the entire film the mythic images associated with epics. Stanley sees his life in widescreen, and Year of the Dragon begins to portray him as a kind of Western hero; “There’s a new marshal in town,” he tells Harry Yung (Victor Wong), one of the local Chinese crime bosses stepping into the leadership vacuum after the film’s opening assassination. This kind of brash announcement of the restoration of law and order, overseen by the Great White Hero, is perfectly resonant with a number of other films in the genre; however, Cimino undermines the assumption of authority by giving Yung a joke — he groans as if he’s heard this kind of thing before, inviting the audience to laugh, and thereby question the hero’s crusade. Cimino gives Yung, Tai and the other men ample opportunity to air their grievances with the police, who have treated them like an afterthought at best and like colonized subjects at worst. They trace their organization’s roots back to a thousand years of custom and tradition, which White dismisses out of hand. White accelerates the tension by launching into a series of racist attacks against them. “I’m tired of Chinese this, Chinese that,” he says, “This is America you’re living in and you’d better get your clocks fixed.”

White’s name, along with his attitude — change your customs or die – reflects the degree to which he inhabits the idea of America as a white supremacist nation. In changing his overtly Polish-sounding surname to the anodyne “White,” he signals his desire to be a part of that unifying racial identity. In order to be an American, White believes he must be white. His racism is a fundamental aspect of his character; he frequently reduces his opponents to stereotypes, wrapping his quest in the rhetoric and practice of colonial imperialism. He has been set loose to “civilize” the wild, untamed Chinatown, populated by “savages” with no respect for American ideals. And yet, it is Stanley who, in the police precinct he commands, barks “Fuck their civil rights!” at a subordinate who questions his order to raid and round up as many Chinese men as they can. Cimino creates this clash to deconstruct the mythic hero, laying bare the prejudice that motivates him to visit destruction upon those people he sees as his racial inferiors. He does not act out of adherence to a higher set of ideals, frustrated by the machinations of meddling bureaucracy or cowardly politicians. He has no innate sense of right and wrong or fealty to justice. He uses the law as a tool to subordinate racial minorities in an attempt to resolve his own ambivalence about the security of his whiteness, and thus, his position in American society.

Year of the Dragon stages White’s resumption of Vietnam War hostilities on the streets of Chinatown by emphasizing his racism. The screenplay co-written by Stone, a leftist critic of the Vietnam War whose films Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Heaven & Earth (1993) give voice to the depth of his anger at a conflict in which he personally fought, brings violence and sexuality together by drawing upon imagery that suggests “rape of the land,” a common rhetorical device associated with wars of imperialism — a critique often leveled at American involvement in Vietnam. In addition to the crime story focused on White’s attempts to stop crime in the neighborhood by getting Joey Tai, the main portion of the narrative is devoted to White’s rejection of his own marriage to Connie (who is white) and his tempestuous professional and personal affair with Tracy (who is of mixed Chinese and Japanese descent). Though Joey shows no overt romantic interest in Tracy himself, he represents a rival for Stanley in winning her affections along racial lines. In his quest to eliminate Tai, White seeks to preserve his ability to conquer Tracy as he sees fit; the two narrative events that send White into a tailspin are Connie’s murder and Tracy’s rape, both ordered by Joey and carried out by his men. Each represents violation of the women in the main, of course, but also of Stanley’s control over his secure position as an empowered white male in an authoritative role.

A pair of scenes between Stanley and Tracy suggest the conflation of sexuality and violence in the mind of the film’s troubled protagonist. In Tracy’s spacious Brooklyn penthouse apartment looking out at the island of Manhattan, White approaches her, having given her a ride home. His mind at war with itself, he says: “The first time I saw you, I hated your guts. I think I even hated you before I met you. I hated you on TV. I hated you in Vietnam. You want to know what’s destroying this country? It’s not booze. It’s not drugs. It’s TV. It’s media. It’s people like you. It’s vampires. I hate the way you make your living sticking microphones in people’s faces. You lie every night at 6:00. I hate the way you kill real feelings. I hate everything that you stand for. Most of all, I hate rich kids and I hate this place. So why do I want to fuck you so bad?” His speech is rife with double meanings, including the racially charged invective that conflates the media with Tracy’s Chinese-Japanese origins, but Stanley makes a crucial mistake — in referencing hating “you in Vietnam,” he not only adopts the hind sighted cultural perspective that the media’s use of combat footage changed public opinion against the war, but also confuses Tracy’s ancestry for that of the people he fought while in country. Cimino underlines the point by giving White another opportunity to make the same mistake again. Later, he returns to Tracy’s apartment after a fight with Connie and, feeling more than a little lost, sits down across from Tracy, who is ambivalent about his return. He says, “It’s the same thing as in ‘Nam. We lost because you were smarter than us.”

He has brought the war home with him, and the trauma he replays is the nightmare of loss. He expresses no overt regrets over the things he did while in combat, and name-checks no friends he lost to enemy fire. His pain is the continued sense that whatever he does, he is destined to fail. He shoulders the burden of America’s loss in Vietnam as his own loss, as though his nation’s failure were his alone. When White addresses a group of police officers in his command at the precinct, they line up in formation; he stalks back and forth from one end of the line to the other, barking out orders like a sergeant pepping up his men for battle. After Joey’s political connections force White’s superiors in the police chain of command to restrict his one-man war, Stanley lashes out. He tells them, “This is a fuckin’ war. And I’m not gonna lose it — not this one.” White has attached his self-worth to two things: his whiteness and his ability to win, which, heretofore, have been synonymous.

Above all, White is afraid of losing — in his mind, it is worse that he might lose, again, to his perceived racial inferior. This is the film’s difficult line, one made blurrier by the fact that in Stanley’s quixotic, excessive, one-man crusade, Cimino the filmmaker no doubt sees something of himself. Returning to direct after the catastrophic failure of Heaven’s Gate, which became a microcosm of the dissolution of the New Hollywood period forever associated with his name, Cimino’s close identification with a protagonist consumed by an obsessive quest to win after a staggering loss seems obvious. And yet, Cimino’s goal is not to endorse White’s racism and the insecurities that drive him, but to examine a supposedly heroic character who, because of his flaws, might actually be a villain. Cimino undermines White’s address to his officers/troops by first underscoring with Patton-like martial drumbeats and soaring orchestra, but the music runs out halfway through his Bill-of-Rights-indifferent speech, suggesting that the film itself no longer wants to go along with his pursuit of Tai. In the police commissioner’s office, White comes off as the erratic, unreasonable man, with the others inside the power structure depicted calmly, governed by rationality.

White’s final confrontation with Joey Tai along a set of railroad tracks near a New York City shipping port likewise emphasizes his growing insanity. Wearing his Marines jacket, White ambushes Tai, who has come to the port to oversee the delivery of a shipment of drugs from Thailand, slamming his car into Joey’s. After some gunplay that leaves both men wounded, White chases Tai to the tracks. The two run at each other, guns blazing, a war between individual champions. White, confusing Joey’s Chinese heritage for Vietnamese, sees the duel as a chance to avenge the loss that haunts him. To Joey, White is an obstacle that stands in the way of his attainment of the economic benefits afforded to white men. Early in the film, Joey tells White, “The Chinese come here to prosper, not to change things.” Joey believes in America. To him, it is a place where all can obtain wealth and power. His sanctioned murder of the Italian candy store owner during the funeral parade associates his rise with that of Italian immigrants, especially as depicted in The Godfather (1972). His vision of America aligns with the one presented in that landmark New Hollywood film. In adopting its narrative structure for Joey, and the location of Polanski’s Chinatown, Cimino repurposes the iconography of the cinematic era he is supposedly responsible for destroying.

White believes in America, too; it is an America for him alone. Cimino’s ugly portrayal of a white supremacist police officer hell-bent on obliterating a racial minority’s criminal element casts a dark shadow over the structure of the cop genre. Though William Friedkin was unafraid to put racist epithets in the mouth of The French Connection’s central character, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), Popeye is still presented as a hero. For a certain audience, so too is Dirty Harry Callahan, and even, though he is not a police officer, Death Wish’s Paul Kersey. Cimino walks a finer line, asking an audience to empathize and identify with Stanley White, and then trapping them in his racist, manic head. Year of the Dragon offers little comfort, and when it does, Cimino heavily suggests its victories are hollow and insincere. It is a dark-mirror exercise in genre fragmentation that shatters the vigilante cop thriller into thousands of pieces and lays its ugliest instincts frighteningly bare.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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