Friday, March 31, 2017

Crying Freeman

Based on the best-selling manga of the same name by Kazio Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami about a deadly assassin that cries every time he kills his target, Crying Freeman (1995) marked the auspicious feature film debut of French filmmaker Christophe Gans. Never given a theatrical release in the United States, it took years to find its way on DVD where it developed a small but dedicated following.

When a young artist by the name of Emu O’Hara (Julie Condra) witnesses the murders of several Japanese Yakuza members at the hands of Yo Hinomura (Mark Dacascos), her life changes forever. Yo is a kind of Manchurian Candidate (1962)-style assassin, a tortured man forever marked with a full-body tattoo and a curse that keeps him working for a Chinese Triad known as “Sons of the Dragon.” They are at war with rival Japanese outfit the Hakushin Society, led by Shido Shimazaki (Mako), in Vancouver.

He enlists the help of Detective Netah (Tcheky Karyo), an Interpol agent, and Detective Forge (Rae Dawn Chong), a local cop, to track down and protect Emu as she witnessed the murder of Shimazaki’s son at the hands of Yo. He surmises that Yo will kill her and that they can apprehend him when he comes for her. The police are given 48 hours to do it or else a full-out gang war will erupt in the city streets. Emu’s life gets even more complicated when she falls in love with Yo, which puts her life in great danger.

I like that Gans shows what motivates both the protagonist and antagonist of the film and so we have a lengthy flashback explaining how Yo became a deadly assassin while also showing the inner workings of the Hakushin Society and Detective Netah’s role in it. This gives the “good guys” and the “bad guys” added dimension that you don’t often see in comic book adaptations or action movies. Gans also shows the corruption that exists in both organizations with Yo and his Japanese counterpart Ryuji (Masaya Kato) being set up and targeted for death once they have outlived their usefulness. This sets up an action-packed finale as Yo protects Emu from numerous assailants in a stylistic love letter to the Hong Kong films of John Woo.

Both Mark Dacascos and Julie Condra are dead ringers for their manga counterparts and Gans wisely compensates for their lack of acting prowess by largely limiting their dialogue, letting their body language do most of the heavy lifting. But then, you’re not watching Crying Freeman for Oscar caliber acting; you want to see plenty of action-oriented mayhem and this film certainly delivers the goods. That being said, the two leads have superb chemistry together, which makes their on-screen romance believable and, apparently, off-screen as they got married after making the film.

From the lethal meet-cute between Yo and Emu to the scene where Yo takes out Shimazaki, Gans choreographs the action sequences in slow motion reminiscent of Woo’s Hong Kong action epics. Gans gets a lot of bang out of his modest $5 million budget scoring major style points with these sequences. I like how he mixes things up with the types of weapons Yo uses, ranging from guns to a bow and arrow to a sword. It demonstrates an impressive versatility on his part while keeping the action sequences distinctive from one another.


Gans does his best to impart, at times, heavy-handed symbolism and artsy-fartsy flourishes into what is basically an action crime film and I admire his attempt to do something different so that it stands out from the usual genre fare. While Crying Freeman may seem heavily indebted to Hong Kong action films, it anticipated the much more satisfying follow-up Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), a fantastic genre mash-up that demonstrated how much Gans had learned in the intervening years.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Night Falls on Manhattan

In a prolific and diverse career, some of Sidney Lumet’s best films dealt with police corruption. It was a theme that the filmmaker was drawn to as far back as the 1970s with Serpico (1973) and would revisit regularly in the 1980s with Prince of the City (1981) and the 1990s with Q & A (1990). It was towards the end of the latter decade that he made Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), an adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel Tainted Evidence about a newly elected district attorney’s attempt to battle corruption within the New York Police Department. The film wasn’t given a particularly wide release and performed modestly at the box office with mixed reviews. Perhaps it was felt that Lumet’s film was nothing more than an expensive, feature-length episode of Law and Order, which is unfortunately because it delves into the personal and professional dilemmas of its characters in a much deeper way than that television show.

The film starts off by shedding light on the little-shown process of how someone becomes an assistant district attorney by following Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) as he pays his dues by working all kinds of cases in big and small court rooms with long hours that take their toll on his personal life – all in a wonderfully economic montage that is vintage Lumet as he succinctly gives us the information we need to know about the job.

When a heavily armed drug dealer (an imposing Shiek Mahmud-Bey) kills two cops, seriously wounds a police detective (Ian Holm), and escapes in a cop car, the fiery district attorney Morgenstern (Ron Leibman) takes a personal interest in Sean as his father was the detective that was critically wounded and wants Sean to prosecute the drug dealer. The scene where Morgenstern pitches the case to Sean is a joy to watch as veteran character actor Ron Leibman works the room with his larger than life character.

Morgenstern tells Sean that it’s a simple case and he’ll have the jury’s sympathy because of his father. After Sean leaves, the understandably upset senior A.D.A. Elihu Harrison (Colm Feore) tears into his boss for choosing the younger man over him and tells him the real reason he picked Sean over him – it’s all about politics because he knows that when he’s up for re-election he’ll be going up against Harrison. The scene provides fascinating insight into backroom politics – something that Lumet excels at doing. The D.A. is a shrewd man and knows that by giving the case to Sean he’s going to be personally motivated to do everything he can to put the drug dealer away.

In an intriguing twist, flashy defense attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss) agrees to take on the drug dealer’s case under the auspices that it was self-defense as the police where trying to murder him. To make matters worse, Morgenstern bungles the arrest of the drug dealer and it plays out embarrassingly in front of the press on T.V. The court case plays out as you would expect, but the film really gets interesting when it explores what happens afterwards.

For fans of courtroom dramas, Night Falls on Manhattan is pure cinematic catnip as we get to see Andy Garcia and Richard Dreyfuss go at it as they each try to appeal to the jury with every skill at their disposal. These kinds of films give actors the opportunity to show off their chops as they often have intense exchanges with fellow actors playing witnesses they question while also delivering lengthy speeches.

Andy Garcia is excellent as an up-and-coming assistant district attorney that he wisely doesn’t play as naïve or earnest but rather inexperienced. Fortunately, he’s a quick learner and climbs up the ladder, finding all kinds of corruption along the way to becoming district attorney. Sean sincerely believes in law and order and that no one is above the law – cops or crooks. Naturally, this is put to the test over the course of the film. It’s great to see Garcia mixing it up with veteran actors like Ian Holm and Ron Leibman in scenes that bring out the best in all involved.

Richard Dreyfuss delivers an outstanding performance as a former 1960s radical cum slick defense lawyer who has an incredible scene with Garcia where Vigoda cuts through the posturing on display in the courtroom and reveals that he took the no-win case of the drug dealer in the hopes of uncovering police corruption and redeem the death of his 15-year-old daughter who overdosed. It’s an emotionally charged scene where Dreyfuss brilliantly underplays his character’s touching vulnerability.

Leibman is also a notable standout in the cast as the blustery D.A. but over the course of the film he loses that bluster and confides in Sean, giving him sage advice about what he’s in store for: “Everybody’s gonna want a piece of you now that you’re elected.” His young protégé asks him if he’s going to have make one big deal to which his mentor replies, “Hundred little deals, a thousand. Deal after deal after deal after deal.” It’s a riveting scene as the former D.A. tells Sean how it is and Leibman nails it, losing none of the intensity of his earlier scenes even though he’s become something of a tragic figure.

Night Falls on Manhattan examines why cops go on the take and it is not as simple as they want to make money. It often runs deeper than that and this is one of the hallmarks of Lumet’s police corruption films. He is fascinated with how the justice system works and examines its inner workings in a way that few other filmmakers have done. He presents the justice system as a complex mechanism with many working parts. His films dramatize what happens when one of these parts malfunctions. It is never easy to fix. All of his films don’t offer easy answers because real life is like that. The protagonists in these films have to make tough choices that have serious ramifications and then they have to live with them.

Sidney Lumet was coming off back-to-back commercial misfires with A Stranger Among Us (1992) Guilty as Sin (1993) and Night Falls on Manhattan was seen as the director returning to familiar turf. The film was inspired by the infamous 1986 shoot-out between the police and big-time drug dealer Larry Davis who killed several cops in a bust gone wrong. It was based partly on the Robert Daley novel Tainted Evidence, although, according to Lumet, only the beginning of the film up to the trial came from the book, the rest was original. The filmmaker was drawn to the idea that the film’s protagonist “doesn’t pursue anything, it pursues him. And slowly the world that he’s living keeps closing in, and closing in with a complexity he never thought possible.”

Night Falls on Manhattan received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Night Falls on Manhattan is absorbing precisely because we cannot guess who is telling the truth, or what morality some of the characters possess.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “The great thing about Lumet is that he is not cynical but instead finds an amusing irony in exploring the art of the possible, in discovering that point at which decent people in positions of power and responsibility can be capable of working together privately, of looking the other way if necessary, for the greater good of all concerned.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “The plot is such a warhorse that Lumet…feels he has to explain why he’s filming it in a letter to the press: ‘Why am I back at the same old stand: cops, corruption, culpability? Because the problem won’t go away. In fact, it’s getting worse.’”

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Lumet’s screenplay does a good job of articulating the disillusioning realities of careerism and crime. And he has an ear, as ever, for the disparate voices of the city. But Night Falls on Manhattan is also oddly listless. It doesn’t often live up to the doomy eloquence of its title.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “That said, what must be added is that, disappointingly, Night Falls on Manhattan doesn’t quite add up. Dreyfuss is great, Holm is great, Mahmud-Bey is great, Leibman is great, but Garcia is so mopey and conflicted he becomes ultimately tiresome.”

Night Falls on Manhattan ends as it began – with a new crop of fresh-faced assistant district attorneys only this time Sean talks to them and it’s his turn to impart sage advice as he tells them:

“You’re going to spend most of your time in the grey areas. But out there that’s where you’re going to come face to face with who you really are and that’s a frightening thing to ask of you. And it might take a lifetime to figure out.”

Sean is a different man then who we met at the beginning of the film. He still believes in the law but its tempered by what he’s experienced. It may have shaken his resolve but it hasn’t broken it. Not yet.


SOURCES

Callahan, Maureen. “A Streetwise Legend Sticks to His Guns.” New York Magazine. May 26, 1997.


Simon, Alex and Terry Keefe. “Remembering Sidney Lumet.” Hollywood Interview. April 1, 2015.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Perdita Durango

Perdita Durango (1997) is a fascinating oddity in the filmography of Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia. It was his attempt at breaking into the North American market with a cast that featured recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem and James Gandolfini. Unfortunately, De La Iglesia’s film came out before Bardem became known to audiences here and two years before Gandolfini hit it big with The Sopranos. As a result, Perdita Durango was trimmed by ten minutes and dumped into direct-to-video hell with the generic title Dance with the Devil. Even in this neutered form, De La Igleisia’s film is a gonzo potpourri of wild sex, crazed violence and pitch black humor. In other words, the stuff that instant cult films are made of.

Based on Barry Gifford’s novel 59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango, De La Iglesia’s film is a spin-off, of sorts, of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) – also an adaptation of one of Gifford’s novels – by focusing on one of the minor characters featured in that film (and played by Isabella Rossellini). Perdita (Perez) is a tough, no-nonsense lady clad in a Tura Satana-style black outfit. She meets Romeo Dolorosa (Bardem), a maniacal criminal who also happens to be an even more maniacal witch doctor.

The couple cross the border into Mexico, become lovers and partners in crime as they kidnap a white-bread couple of teens – Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham) and transport a truckload of human fetuses to Las Vegas while trying to evade determined Drug Enforcement Agency officer Woody Dumas (Gandolfini).

The opening scene, where a schlubby guy tries to pick up Perdita at an airport, tells us all we need to know about her – she’s smart, tough and more than capable of handling herself, sending the hapless guy scurrying with a few choice words. It’s a juicy role that Rosie Perez sinks her teeth into, immersing herself fully. She shows a wide range of emotions as her character is more than an amoral criminal, she also conveys a vulnerability – albeit fleeting – that gives her a bit more depth than one would expect from this kind of a film.

Romeo is an impulsive mad man as evident in a flashback where he forces a busty bank teller to expose her naked breast while he’s robbing the bank! He then double-crosses his partner, hitting him with the getaway vehicle. Much like Perez, Javier Bardem commits fully to the role with scary intensity. Romeo is a force of nature that follows his own beliefs that are a funky fusion of a love for cinema and a twisted belief in Santeria.

James Gandolfini portrays Woody as a slightly sleazy, slightly seedy character that speaks with a slightly weasely lisp and has the misfortune of being repeatedly hit by fast moving vehicles, not unlike a live-action Wile E. Coyote. He also seems to be mildly fixated on Ava Gardner, at one point remarking how much he likes her lips. He’s determined to bring down Romeo for his outstanding drug offenses and will let nothing get in his way. It becomes a point of pride for him. Gandolfini steals every scene he’s in with his I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude and that is saying something in a film that features larger than life characters played by Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

The film is at its most horrific in the scenes where Romeo practices voodoo. In one ritualistic scene, he drenches himself in blood and smothers his face in a bag of cocaine. He then hacks limbs off of a corpse, tears out its heart and writhes around on the ground, channeling multitudes of demons. There is an unpredictable energy to the scene that makes it scary and thrilling. De la Iglesia contrasts these scenes with gallows humour. Romeo may be a vicious killer but he also loves the music of Herb Albert. There is a hilarious moment where he and Perdita happily groove to the strains of The Dating Game theme.

From the grotesque mutants who threaten Earth in Accion Mutante (1993) to the graphic voodoo practices in Perdita Durango, horrific, often bizarre, imagery has always been prominent in Alex de la Iglesia’s movies. Like his cinematic contemporaries — Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro and France’s Christophe Gans — De la Iglesia impishly mixes a variety of genres in his films:

“I like to play with genres and construct my own movies...What I am trying to do is inject poison into these genres. In a happy comedy I like to introduce poison and make the movie freaky and weird, with a tasteless sense of humor.”

It is no surprise that, like Del Toro and Gans, De la Iglesia comes from a comic book/fanzine background that informs all of his work. There is something of the film geek in all of three filmmakers that results in a desire to include show-stopping spectacle set pieces in their movies and to quote other films in their own work, fueled by an obsession with American culture.

El Dia de la bestia was a huge hit in its native country, earning six Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards), and breaking box office records. Producer Andres Vicente Gomez saw the movie and wanted De la Iglesia to direct Perdita Durango. Gomez felt that De la Iglesia’s sensibilities were better suited for the project than current director, Bigas Luna. With pre-production already underway, De la Iglesia came aboard and molded the material to fit his preoccupations.

For all of its inspired lunacy, Perdita Durango is not without its poignant moments, like when Romeo waxes nostalgic about seeing Vera Cruz (1954) at an impressionable age and how the fate of Burt Lancaster’s character resonated with him. Like with that film, there is a certain sense of fatalism in Perdita Durango as Romeo knows he’s going to die but goes through with one last job anyway and De La Iglesia literally has him become Lancaster’s character, mimicking the showdown in Vera Cruz with the one between Romeo and his cousin Reggie (Carlos Bardem). Perdita Durango ends on a deliciously subversive note as the titular character walks through a gaudy Vegas casino with “Winner” signs flashing all around her – epitomizing the American dream – but she’s lost everything.


Perdita Durango is a curious oddity in De la Iglesia’s oeuvre. It is his most overt attempt to crack the North American market (where he has only a small but dedicated following) with his first English-speaking film and a cast of recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini and Javier Bardem. This alienated his Spanish fans who probably felt he had sold out, while his perchance for graphic sex and violence scared off potential distributors and mainstream audiences in North America, sending the film direct to video. This reaction is unfortunate because Perdita Durango is De la Iglesia’s most successful effort: a perfect mix of the ridiculous and the epic, with the right blend of genres (crime, horror, comedy, road trip) and a wonderfully eclectic cast that features his regular favorites (Santiago Segura) and colorful character actors (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins).

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Lonely Guy

The Lonely Guy (1984), starring Steve Martin and Charles Grodin, is part of a popular subgenre of the romantic comedy with sad sack protagonists unlucky in and often looking for love such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) and Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981) with the female equivalent in movies like Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Someone Like You (2001). These movies often feature socially awkward protagonists fumbling their way through unsuccessful relationships. The Lonely Guy fancies itself as a grandiose cinematic statement on the subgenre right down to the mock-epic-style opening that playfully references 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Larry Hubbard (Martin) is a successful greeting card writer living in New York City. He comes home one day to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and seems completely oblivious to it all in an amusing bit where he carries on with his daily routine as if nothing is wrong. Kicked to curb, Larry wanders the streets until he sits on a park bench and meets experienced “lonely guy” Warren Evans (Grodin) whose girlfriend just left him for a guy robbing her apartment (“It’s probably for the best. She was really starting to let herself go,” he deadpans.).

Warren gives Larry a lot of helpful advice, like avoiding wealthy neighborhoods to live in because they have high crime rates (he even sees a man thrown off a building and another guy shot on the sidewalk in front of him!). These early scenes between Steve Martin and Charles Grodin are among the strongest of the movie as the former’s optimism clashes hilariously with the latter’s pessimism.

Larry soon discovers that there are all kinds of other lonely, single guys like him out there and they need advice like he did and so he decides to write a book entitled, A Guide for the Lonely Guy. It becomes hugely successful and Larry finds himself not so lonely any more. He even tries to pick up a woman at a bar by telling her that he’s looking for a real relationship while she admits that she just wants to have sex. As if on cue, Warren shows up and asks Larry, “Ever think about getting a dog?”

This scene demonstrates how The Lonely Guy deftly juggles satire with keen observations on human behavior. Everything is heightened for comedic effect reminiscent of the Zucker Abrams Zucker movies only not quite as zany. In some respects, this movie, with its self-reflexive voiceover narration and breaking of the fourth wall, feels like a warm-up for Martin’s comedic opus L.A. Story (1991), which manages to balance satire with poignant observations about relationships much more successfully.

Larry meets Iris (Judith Ivey), an attractive woman he keeps running into but is unable to make it work because the timing isn’t right. They have an on-again-off-again relationship that plays out over the course of the movie.

Martin manages to effortlessly tread a fine comedic line between hapless doormat and hopeless romantic. The problem with a lot of romantic comedies is that they’re populated by impossibly good-looking people that would never have a problem finding love and while he is a handsome guy Martin is able to convey the awkwardness of someone lacking confidence – that makes him a believable lonely guy.

Grodin plays Warren as the ultimate dweeb who refers to his plants as “guys.” In the 1980s, he excelled at playing uptight, nebbish characters (Midnight Run) and this is one of the best takes on this type. In a movie with many outrageous gags and set pieces, he wisely underplays, delivering a less is more performance that is quite funny. The best scenes in the movie are between him and Martin. They play well off each other and it’s a shame they didn’t do more movies together.

Neil Simon adapted Bruce Jay Friedman’s book, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life and then Jay Friedman and Stan Daniels, known for their work on television sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, wrote the screenplay. The project was a challenging change of pace for them as the latter said, “We were used to writing about real people and real problems – in other words, just straightforward realistic comedy. The Lonely Guy is a stylized way of getting at reality.”

Principal photography began in spring of 1983 at Universal Studios’ famous New York City backlot on Stage 28 with Larry and Warren’s apartments built on the same soundstage. Incredibly, a life-sized scale replica of the Manhattan Bridge was constructed, standing eight feet in the air and was 44-feet wide, taking four weeks to build. In addition, actual location shooting took place in Los Angeles and for three weeks in New York.

The Lonely Guy was savaged by critics with Roger Ebert giving it one-and-a-half out of four stars and writing, “The Lonely Guy is the kind of movie that seems to have been made to play in empty theaters on overcast January afternoons.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Whenever the film tries for sprightliness, it stumbles. When it gives in to the basic misery of Larry and his situation, though, it begins to make some sort of morose comic sense.” Pauline Kael felt that is had “some wonderful gags and a lot of other good ideas for gags, but it was directed by Arthur Hiller, who is the opposite of a perfectionist, and it makes you feel as if you were watching television.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Nevertheless, despite the flailing around, the picture fitfully accumulates a handful of modest highlights and silly brainstorms. They may seem sufficient to justify the trouble, especially if you extend Martin & Co. the courtesy of not expecting a classic.” Even Martin wasn’t too crazy with the end result. He didn’t like Larry and felt that as a character he was “too weak. I realized I played too nebbishy. That’s what was written, but it’s not a character I especially want to play anymore.”

Even though the situations Larry finds himself in are heightened for comedic effect, The Lonely Guy does capture the single guy mindset quite well – the desperation and the rationalization that a lot of men experience as they try to find that special someone. Ultimately, the movie suggests that you have to be willing to put yourself out there if you want to meet someone and that takes courage as you run the risk of being rejected. There’s something to be said about making an attempt and the movie champions this approach albeit in a satirical way. If The Lonely Guy is remembered at all its as a commercial and critical failure that not even its star liked but I think he, Kael and other film critics have been too hard on this trifle of a movie that is funny and features a stand-out performance by Charles Grodin.


SOURCES

Pollock, Dale. “Steve Martin: A Wild and Serious Guy.” Los Angeles Times. September 16, 1984.


The Lonely Guy Production Notes. 1984.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Year of the Dragon

“No one remembers in this country. No one remembers anything.” – Stanley White

A commercial and critical debacle on the scale of Heaven’s Gate (1980), which helped topple a Hollywood studio, would be a career killer for most filmmakers but not for Michael Cimino who came roaring back five years later with the controversial adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel Year of the Dragon (1985). Co-written by Oliver Stone, it starred Mickey Rourke as a hard-charging, unrepentant racist and sexist cop that decides to battle organized crime in New York City’s Chinatown.

The film polarized critics, failed to make back its $22 million budgets and angered members of the Chinese American and Asian American communities that blasted it for being racist, sexist and xenophobic but Cimino defended his film by arguing that it dealt with racism and was not actually racist. This did little to quell the controversy, which hurt its box office performance.

Cimino immediately immerses us in the sights and sounds of Chinatown with a cacophonous celebration in the streets filled with people. Amidst this chaos, one of the local crime bosses is killed in broad daylight sparking speculation that a gang war has begun with young punks moving against their elders. This gets the attention of the New York Police Department who install Stanley White (Rourke) as the new police captain of Chinatown.

He immediately adopts a more proactive approach to crime by barging into newly appointed kingpin Harry Yung’s (Victor Wong) office and telling him and his underlings to keep the young gangs under control, laying down the law in a superbly delivered speech:

“You think gambling, extortion, corruption are kosher because it’s a thousand years old? Well, all this thousand years old stuff, it’s a lot of shit to me. This is America you’re livin’ in, it’s 200 years old so you better get your clocks fixed.”

This tactic doesn’t endear him to his superior, Bukowski (Raymond J. Barry) who scoffs at White’s theory that the Chinese gangs, if they go unchecked, will make in-roads into other boroughs. It’s a fascinating fiery battle of wills as White argues that the reason the Chinese gangs don’t get busted for trafficking heroin is because they’re smart. Bukowski dismisses this notion and tells White to go after the youth gangs whom he regards as nothing more than troublemakers.

One memorable exchange has Bukowski tell White, “You’re not in Vietnam here, Stanley,” to which he replies, “There, I never saw the goddamn enemy. Here, they’re right in front of my eyes. They got no place to hide, no jungle.” In some respects, he has a point and in other ways he doesn’t. New York is its own jungle made of concrete and steel that is just as dangerous and unforgiving as the one in Vietnam as White will find out later on.

Cimino provides valuable insight into White’s troubled home life and his turbulent relationship with his wife Connie (Caroline Kava) who wants to have a child; the only problem is he is never around because of his workaholic tendencies. They’ve grown apart and, as a result, he finds himself increasingly attracted to beautiful young Chinese American television reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi). Their initial meet-cute starts off as a history lesson as White attempts to dazzle her with his knowledge of Chinese history and the ills that plague Chinatown, and it culminates in a bloody shoot-out as a brazen youth gang riddle the restaurant they’re in full of bullets.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Chinese triad societies have their own problems. The youth gang attacks have made them look weak and no new revenues are coming in. It’s time for new leadership and the ambitious Joey Tai (John Lone), a bridge between the gangs and the elders, has a plan for the Chinese mafia to re-exert their influence in Chinatown and beyond thereby setting up an inevitable confrontation between him and White but not before a series of escalating attacks against each other.

Year of the Dragon is a snapshot of the criminal underworld in 1980s Chinatown, showing how things work in a way that is fascinating to watch. Cimino doesn’t pull any punches and presents flawed characters on both sides of the law. This is best exemplified by Mickey Rourke’s obsessed cop. The actor is not afraid to play unlikable characters and White is one for the ages – he’s racist, sexist and manages to piss off just about everyone that he comes in contact with, including his wife who tells him at one point, “You used me up, Stanley and then you burned me down. And I was a rock,” but he is good at his job, which is all he has left. Even that begins to slip through his fingers as his increasingly aggressive tactics burn his bridges within the police department and the Chinese community. It is Rourke’s natural charisma that makes White an interesting character. Watch how the actor works the room when White confronts Harry Yung and how he controls the space, or the scene where he gives a squad of cops a pep talk – it’s a masterclass in acting.

Cimino and Oliver Stone’s screenplay crackles with intensity and is chock-a-block with tough guy dialogue while also acting as a searing expose of the Chinese triads by pitting two strong-willed men against each other, leaving plenty of bodies in their respective wakes. The script goes to great lengths to show how the drug trade works, like how Joey gets his heroin directly from Southeast Asia, bypassing the Italian mafia who has always marginalized them. You certainly feel Stone’s politics blasting through his pulpy prose. Year of the Dragon is the cinematic explosion of Cimino and Stone’s collective ids writ large over every frame of this gritty, visceral opus (with a dash of Sidney Lumet cop procedural for good measure).

Coming off writing the screenplay for Scarface (1983), Oliver Stone was depressed at being unable to get personal films like Platoon (1986) made. He was contacted by filmmaker Michael Cimino who was adapting Robert Daley’s book Year of the Dragon for Dino de Laurentiis. He had read and was impressed with Stone’s script for Platoon and wanted him to co-write the script for Year of the Dragon. Cimino thought that if Stone worked for a lower than usual fee, de Laurentiis might finance Platoon. Stone told him that no one cared about the Vietnam War anymore but Cimino disagreed. Stone remembers, “It was Michael who convinced me that the climate was right for it.”

Stone met with de Laurentiis and he agreed to write Year of the Dragon if the mogul financed Platoon (he later reneged on this agreement with Stone). Cimino and Stone conducted a lot of research for the film, interviewing anybody who would talk to them about gangs and heroin dealing in New York’s Chinatown, but it wasn’t easy. Stone said:

“We got information finally from a dissident gangster group. These were guys who were on the outs and very unhappy. They took us to Atlantic City and showed us the inner workings of the gambling world, and also showed us their side of what was going on in Chinatown.”

This connection was provided by a line producer by the name of Alex Ho who had been working for de Laurentiis for two years. He remembered:

“One time Oliver and Michael wanted to see this gambling house where only Chinese people are allowed to enter. So this policeman who was really nice to us busted one of the gambling joints that night so we could see what it was like…Another night Michael wanted to see what happens when someone is shot with a shotgun, so we spent the whole night sitting in an ambulance.”

For the protagonist, Stone suggested changing his name to Stanley White, after a police detective friend he knew from another project. White gave them permission to use his name and a lot of his “eccentricities.” Stone, however, was not happy with how de Laurentiis interfered with the ending of the film. While White had two women in his life, so did Joey Tai – one in Hong Kong and one in New York. Stone said:

“In a moment of sentimentality, he brings the Chinese wife to the States and the Mickey Rourke character finds out about it. So, after he can’t get him legally with a bust or a wiretap, he busts him for bigamy.”

De Laurentiis made Cimino change the ending to a more conventional shoot-out, which Stone did not like. The filmmaker said that Cimino also ran into problems casting the role of Stanley White:

“We went to several people, but they didn’t want the part. In some cases, it was because of Michael’s reputation after Heaven’s Gate, but also most actors didn’t care for the character. He’s a right-winger. He’s a racist. That is the way the character was conceived and written. He’s sexist on top of it. You had to have a big pair of balls to play that part.”

Cimino shot on location in North Carolina, recreating nearly all of the New York setting there at great expense. Ho remembered:

“Like there were two Mercedes that were to be in crashes. There was a 380 and a 450, and I said, ‘Could I buy a 380 and then just change the number to 450 for the crash scene?’ And Michael said, ‘No.’ That was like ten or fifteen thousand dollars.”

Not surprisingly, Year of the Dragon divided critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The actors fare particularly badly under such circumstances. Mr. Rourke, who almost always generates a relaxed, knowing magnetism, is entirely lost in the underwritten role of a middle-aged policeman.” The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “Year of the Dragon has an arrogant, electric energy that dares you to look away from the screen for an instant. Do so and you miss a furious piece of action that has bubbled up, seemingly out of nowhere.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, “Cimino might make a good movie if he were forced to shoot someone else’s script, and banned from hiring extras, but he’ll never do it – he’s an auteur, and our best example of auteurism’s limits.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “For all of its excesses, Year of the Dragon is a solid entertainment. It marks director Cimino as a man to watch now not for his spend-thrift ways but for the size of his vision.”

Year of the Dragon opened in 982 theaters on August 16, 1985 and was met with harsh criticism and protests by the Asian community in Hollywood, New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston. They objected to the racist and sexist attitudes expressed in the film. Many felt that it perpetuated Asian stereotypes. Judy Chu, an instructor of Asian-American studies at UCLA, said that the film “only reinforces the stereotype that Asians have no value for love and no sense of integrity…Even the newswoman is a stereotype. She is a new version of an old stereotype of the Geisha girl.” Even Richard Daley, the author of the novel, which it was based on, became an outspoken critic of the film: “When I read the script, I wanted to cry. I thought about taking out full-page ads…Dissociating myself from Cimino’s work. It is offensive to anybody.” Eventually, a disclaimer was placed before the film.

Stone dismissed criticism of the portrayal of Chinese people in the film: “The thing critics never realized is that the Chinese were at that time the biggest importers of heroin in this country. They outdid the Mafia, but nobody knew about it because they did it quietly.” Cimino also addressed the controversy, saying, “The film was accused of racism, but they didn’t pay attention to what people say in the film. It’s a film which deals with racism, but it’s not a racist film. To deal with this sort of subject, you must inevitably reveal its tendencies.”

While Year of the Dragon features several racist characters it isn’t a racist film. Cimino isn’t afraid to acknowledge the existence of such people and those kinds of ugly sentiments. He lets many of the Chinese characters speak in their native tongues and espouse their history in America, shedding light on decades of horrible treatment. If anything, Cimino’s film is a savage indictment of such attitudes showing how they lead down a destructive path.

Instead of playing it safe in the hopes of getting back in the good graces of Hollywood, Cimino stayed true to his artistic sensibilities and delivered a hard-hitting crime drama that asks difficult questions and offers no easy answers. Year of the Dragon is an ugly film that forces you to engage it on its own terms and there’s a refreshing honesty to this approach. It flew in the face of the rah-rah, America is great sentiments of movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rocky IV (1985), and Top Gun (1986). Cimino’s film exposes an America that is rotten to the core and built on a foundation of thousands upon thousands of bodies – people that died anonymously. Is it any wonder it failed at the box office? You don’t come out of Year of the Dragon feeling good but sometimes that’s okay, too. Sure, White got his man and got the girl at the end, but it’s a hollow victory at best and one could argue that it didn’t change much. At least he tried and Cimino admires the attempt.


SOURCES

Camy, Gerard; Viviani, Christian. “Entretien avec Cimino.” Jeune cinema. December/January 1985/1986.

Horn, John. “MGM/UA May Insert Dragon Disclaimer.” Los Angeles Times. August 28, 1985.


Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.