So stop acting like he was just some lucky duck who pulled the wool over critics' eyes with The Deer Hunter and that it took Heaven's Gate for them to find out they'd been somehow hoodwinked, 'cause the former was/is/always will be a great flick while the latter is, in my humble-yet-emotional opinion, his best work as a filmmaker that was overshadowed by his studio-killing perfectionist style, like he's the only fuckin' tyrannical asshole director in the entire history of film. Don't let his later disappointing efforts paint over the triumph of his early winning output, not unless you're one of those guys who also feels Francis Ford Coppola ain't worth a shit anymore just because he also directed Jack, and if that's the case, you need a hug to get that hate out of your system.
But just because I think Heaven's Gate is his best work doesn't make it my favorite Cimino; no, that would have to be Year of the Dragon, his follow-up/comeback attempt starring Mickey Rourke in his prime. Cimino co-wrote the film with Oliver Stone, who must've been in coked-out Scarface mode while he was tapping away on the keyboard, because like Scarface, this one's got insanely quotable dialogue that is often badass, hilarious, wrong, or all three simultaneously. Like Scarface, the dramatics are pumped-up, emotionally overwrought, and occasionally didactic as it tries to Teach You Something. And like Scarface, two gunmen shoot up a nightspot filled with innocent bystanders before one of them gets blasted in the foot.
It's like Stone's writing forces a motherfucker to up his game and swell up his directorial testicles in order to tell the story properly; Cimino, Brian De Palma, and John Milius were already up to the challenge -- aggressively cinematic filmmakers that they are -- while a delicate hippie vegan flower like Hal Ashby ended up succumbing to the harsh For Real Men Only energies emanating from Stone's pages and ended up a drugged-out shadow of his former self. You have to look deep within yourself before you take on an Oliver Stone script and know for goddamn sure that you can handle it -- otherwise you might as well be a Nazi opening up the Ark of the Covenant.
But Cimino took to the task like his name was Henry Jones, Jr. and the end accomplishment is a great-looking epic cop flick about a real piece of work named Stanley White (né Wizynski), played by Rourke in one of his best performances. White was a Marine who fought in the Vietnam War but now works out his despair and frustration of that experience by putting some serious foot to ass as the most decorated cop in New York City. In addition to all his commendations for his police work, my man Stan is also highly decorated in being an unlikable prick of a human being; he's pushy, rude, obnoxious, he uses casually racist language, he's a shitty husband to his wife, and he's inconsiderate to the news reporter he's banging on the side (and using in his War Against Crime).
His latest assignment is Chinatown, where he's expected to make the streets safe from all the spiky haired guys and gals who are terrorizing both locals and tourists by doing lovely things out in the open, like stabbing fat old Chinese men in restaurants or blasting old bald cigar-chomping Guidos in the face. It's not so much the deaths of these guys that bothers me, it's the incredibly sad funeral marches that follow with their beyond-mournful dirges that seem to awaken the darkest part of my soul which then says to me "C'mon, it's just a quick slash down your wrist, it'll be worth it".
White must've served in Vietnam alongside Black Dynamite, because evidently Homeboy sees this new beat as an opportunity for a Round 2 against the Vee-Its, and he doesn't limit his street-cleaning to just the youth gangs (which is what his superiors want), he also goes straight to the older recognizable Asian character actors running things and tells them that shit's gonna change (which is what his superiors don't want). This of course doesn't go well with these older tong/triad types, but it really doesn't go well with the young up-and-comer of the group (played by Iceman from Iceman) who may or may not be making power plays for the top of the triads. From that moment on, White's mission is met with many political and criminal roadblocks, occasional tragedies, and the overall hee-larious irony that in his attempt to avoid this becoming "Vietnam all over again" he's pretty much recreating that shit only this time he's the General in this motherfucker.
White's a complicated motherfucker in that he talks so much shit about the Chinese (often to their faces) and yet at times gets very upset at how many of them got fucked/are getting fucked by their own people here in the States -- not to mention how his fellow Americans don't seem to give a fuck about their plight, and those that do are really just taking advantage of them. There's a part where White practically lectures someone on how the railroads in America were built on the bones of many hardworking Chinese and yet they were never given the proper tribute or respect after the job for all their damn-near slave laboring. That had to be a Stone contribution, one of many to remind the audience that this great country can also be a great asshole to the poor/tired/huddled masses, while also serving as a way to cushion the blow for all the uses of "chink", "Chinamen", "yellow niggers", not to mention White's constant references to spare ribs. (Sure enough, all that spare ribs talk led to me picking up Chinese takeout after the film because THE FATNESS NEVER ENDS, IT ONLY EXPANDS.)
Well, those Chinese Are People Too moments were all for naught, because from what I understand, this film got the protest treatment by Asian special interest groups when it hit theaters, because they needed something to get up-in-arms about and Sarah Silverman was still in high school at the time. Actually, I can see where they're coming from; here you have a movie where the lead character keeps going off on the Chinese being both unable or unwilling to assimilate to the American way of doing things, and the only positive Chinese characters are pretty much victims/ineffectual/sacrificial lambs. At that point it doesn't matter that everyone in this film -- with the exception of White's long-suffering wife -- carry degrees from the University of Being A Fucking Asshole, the filmmakers can write and shoot all the lectures they want but it won't change what feels like a tale about Stanley The Very Flawed White Knight trying to save the Chinese from themselves.
Because it's called Year of the Dragon and not Year of the Chupacabra, I can get past the controversy and enjoy the film for what it is, without any baggage. I've never read the Robert Daley novel that this was based on, so I don't know how that shit compares, but the screen-story feels like some pulpy B-level criminal underworld paperback shit. Only Cimino treated the material like he was making 2 Deer 2 Hunter; the cinematography is as beautiful as expected in a Cimino flick (there are also quite a few long takes employed in the storytelling), the production design is even more impressive when you consider that most of this Big Apple flick was shot in North Carolina (on the DVD commentary, Cimino says that his good friend/fellow filmmaking perfectionist Stanley Kubrick was fooled by the fake Mott Street in the film), acting-wise everyone is operating at the proper pitch for this story (with one major exception I'll get to later), there are awesomely intense moments of extreme violence peppered throughout the story (gotta love that borderline-mythical climax on the bridge!), and there's even a detour to Thailand that I'm not even sure was necessary to the film except to give Cimino an opportunity to flex his old-school David Lean muscles and shoot widescreen vistas of mountains, rivers, trees, horses, and hundreds of soldiers in the background.
On the minus side, there are moments that just get a little too goofy for their own good, like the way White looks after pulling a burning body from a fire; combined with his already unkempt appearance, Stan had some Wile E. Coyote stuff happening there. Stuff like that may leave you laughing because there's really no other way to react. Among the other flaws; the ending that I still haven't been able to make total sense of (mostly because of studio interference; Cimino explains on the commentary track what was supposed to be said by one of the characters during the closing moment, and it's a sad reflection on the post-Gate state of his career that he couldn't get his way), and the casting of the news reporter; she's played by model Ariane, who is the personification of Cimino's later works: very impressive visually but underwhelming in performance. The poor girl certainly tries, but she was obviously too young and green for this, her first film.
I've been re-watching the Cims' oeuvre for the past year (easy to take your time when the guy has only made seven features) and my opinion remains the same on this film: It is his most entertaining, and in comparison to the nearly 4-hour Gate, Dragon's 134-minute runtime whizzes by like a fuckin' Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker collaboration, so there's that too. It's as serious as my impending heart attack in tone but is overall Good Times as a viewing experience, which also happens to be how I felt about Scarface and come to think of it both films would make for an awesome double-bill of coked-out entertainment (For the record, fan that I am of certain substances, I'm too scared to do the white stuff because I'm hyper enough as is and my heart would probably explode, plus I don't want to get Cocaine Face).
Anyway, I really like this movie, and if you're a fan of lovely music that sounds like the director told the composer to remind the audience that he once made a movie called The Deer Hunter, or you like seeing people get shot through the hand as they attempt to cover their faces from oncoming bullets, you might like this movie too.
WHITE POWDER MA