Year Of The Dragon is a deluxe trip back into the excess of the 80’s. If you need an indication as to why this is so, just look at the credits: Mickey Rourke is the star, Michael Cimino in the director’s chair and the script co-written by Cimino with Oliver Stone. This roll call should let you know that Year Of The Dragon is neither small nor quiet. The film itself never quite lives up to the sum of its combustible personalities but it makes a pretty distinctive period piece nonetheless.
Year Of The Dragon was adapted from a novel by Robert Daley and tells the tale of Stanley White (Rourke), a highly decorated ex-Vietnam vet cop who is assigned to run the Chinatown police district. He immediately starts busting heads, determined to clean up the area’s long-running corruption. This incurs the wrath of Joey Tai (John Lone), a young triad member who is masterminding his own chicanery behind the scenes to take over Chinatown’s criminal operations. When these two face off, it’s inevitable that sparks will fly and plenty of bystanders, both innocent and guilty, will get wiped out…
The finished product feels like a really good movie at war with a really bad movie. On the good side, Cimino and Stone convincingly recreate the milieu of big-city crime. More importantly, Cimino gives the film tremendous visual grandeur and creates some spellbinding action setpieces along the way. Unfortunately, Cimino and Stone’s script goes way too far in being edgy: all the dialogue scenes amount to one shouting match after another (no one ever has a quiet discussion in this film) and the character of Stanley White is so single-minded and abrasive that it’s tough to sympathize with him… or to see why so many people willingly endanger themselves to help him.
The script is also hopelessly deficient in its portrayal of women. There are only two major female characters and both are depicted in a nasty way: White’s wife (Caroline Kava) is portrayed as a bitter, bile-spewing harpy and Tracy Tzu (Ariane) the Asian reporter White falls in love with is depicted as a mercenary, temperamental snob (and a tease, to boot). The fact that model-turned-actress Ariane gives a stunningly wooden performance doesn’t help things.
Ultimately, Year Of The Dragon is a crime movie with delusions of grandeur. Still, it remains worth seeing for its sense of spectacle and two very strong performances by Rourke and Lone: Rourke delivers the method-actor bluster Stanley White requires with great élan and Lone is perfect as his sly, quiet mirror image. When these two lock horns, the racket they make is almost enough to help you forget the flaws in this pulp epic.