The cries that Michael Cimino's "Year of the Dragon" insults the Chinese-American community have deflected a certain amount of consideration from the fact that it is his first film since "Heaven's Gate," which lost $44 million and brought down a studio.
Seldom, even in Hollywood's gaudy history, has a film maker generated quite so much controversy with such a limited body of work. He had shared writing credit on two films, "Silent Running" and "Magnum Force," and as his first feature directed a violent, efficient melodrama, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" for Clint Eastwood.
Then his Oscar-winning "The Deer Hunter," with its undeniable and gut-clenching power, made him a directorial superstar. The film drew its own charges of racism; its central symbol, of Christopher Walken playing Russian roulette, was an invention, and the ending and the message of "The Deer Hunter" were and are ambiguous.
"Heaven's Gate" is its own massive embroidery upon history, full of action on an epic scale, hugely violent and ultimately inconclusive, rich equally with salon images and half-seized characterizations and relationships, its point not really clear.
What then, you are bound to ask, does "Year of the Dragon" add to our understanding of Cimino the film maker? Beyond doubt, he is an exceptional maker of images, and he handles violent action very well. Violence--what we probably have to call "real-life," societal violence in contrast to the kinky, aberrant, individual violence of the De Palma school--is obviously the linking thread of his films.
No one since Sam Peckinpah has majored so heavily in man's violent inhumanity to man. In Peckinpah's best work, like "The Wild Bunch," there is a sense that he is commenting on violence and dealing with it, not simply exploiting it. There is in Cimino's more a feeling, and increasingly so, that he is having it both ways.
In "Year of the Dragon," even more than in the previous two films, the veneer of reportorial or historical justification for the action is so thin that the point-blank assassinations and the wholesale carnage look like the crowd pleasers they are intended to be.
The film, which Cimino co-authored with Oliver Stone, has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a symmetry formed by the noisy parades that commence and conclude the entertainment. It is beyond doubt a film that knows where it is going, and gets there.
The fact is that you detect throughout the shaping, controlling hand of the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, a man with no great affection for ambiguity. He was after a popular entertainment, and he has evidently found one. To his credit, he took a chance on a director who was as cold as he had been hot when United Artists gave him carte blanche.
What, to return the compliment, Cimino seems to have found is a strong producer (whose experienced presence might have helped carve "Heaven's Gate" into the masterpiece Cimino was aiming for, instead of the massive disappointment it became).
Beneath its authentic borrowings--the violent youth gangs, the conflicts in the Chinese community between old settlers and newer, ruthlessly ambitious arrivals from Hong Kong and elsewhere--"Year of the Dragon" is simply a police thriller adorned with cinematic borrowings.
Mickey Rourke as the obsessed, boss-bucking cop gives a fine and vivid performance, although as an act of creation he resembles a lesser copy of Gene Hackman in "The French Connection." And the model named only Ariane, as the unlikeliest TV reporter in history, gives a performance of such soaring awkwardness that you watch in disbelieving awe. Her lines admittedly would not have come easily to Meryl Streep or Sarah Bernhardt, but holy zilch.
She will do, in fact, as a kind of symbol of the improbabilities of scene, situation and character that Cimino's graphic gifts heroically attempt to paper over, or film over.
What the film fails to clarify sufficiently is what Cimino thinks. The message of "Year of the Dragon" is that nothing changes and that heroic efforts and the deaths of good people as well as bad circle back to status quo.
An equivalent despair was written into "Heaven's Gate." Kris Kristofferson, resigned to his vast family wealth on that vast zillionaire's yacht, has only a photo of the frontier madame to show for eventful, useless days in cow country.
Were the survivors, singing "God Bless America" around the kitchen table back in that steel town in "The Deer Hunter," a colossal study in an irony they didn't perceive, or were they Cimino's affirmation that the horrors of Vietnam had been a noble effort, or what, exactly? After the horrors he had demonstrated so appallingly, it was hard not to take the song as ironic, impressively so. But Cimino later said that irony wasn't what he had in mind; they meant it and so did he.
By a stretch of the imagination you can see, beyond the pessimism and the defeats, that Cimino is making the case for the strong individual doing what he can. Cimino has long wanted to film Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," and his films can possibly be read as endorsing her philosophies. So, come to that, can his defying of the United Artists establishment during the "Heaven's Gate" troubles.
Cimino may yet make the film he absolutely wants to make. Few film makers have greater abilities to construct arresting images and to carry the viewer along on tides of action. But films that do what Cimino seems to want them to do are meldings of style and substance, disciplined and coherent.
He proves that there is no substitute for a strong and finished script, in hand before the cameras roll, and that for him as for the great majority of film makers there is also no substitute for the collaboration of a strong producer who knows what he's doing--and understands what the film maker is trying to do.