Michael Cimino, of The Deer Hunter fame and Heaven’s Gate notoriety, shoots the gap between his Oscar wins for the first and the derision of his work for the second in Mickey Rourke’s The Year of the Dragon. While Rourke had collaborations with Steven Spielberg (1941), Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat), Barry Levinson (Diner), and Francis Ford Coppola (Rumble Fish) under his belt before this Chinatown-based crime thriller, his second work with Cimino proves to be an invasive character study into the heart of a man, showing off Rourke’s range in this Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray.
As a Vietnam veteran and well-decorated police captain, Rourke’s Stanley White shows up in Chinatown, instructed to clean up the new gangs and told to leave the old time gangsters alone. Instead, White barges in idealistically, bombastically, attacking anyone he finds breaking the law, with a notable exception: himself. Using illegal means and excessive force, White draws into complete war with Joey Tai (John Lone), an up-and-coming gangster of his own right. Before long, the two-sided vendetta is leaving bodies in its wake, but rather than deal with the validity of feelings or concerns, Cimino shows White maintaining his one-man war on crime.
White’s mantra seems to be a line from the end of the film, “how can anyone care too much?” but the audience is left with a torn apart life from a man with nothing left to lose. Surprisingly, the film seems to end tragically and violently, until a postlude scene shows that White hasn’t really changed at all, as he remarks, “Sorry. I’d like to be a nice guy. I would. I just don’t know how to be nice.” Ironically, the script by Oliver Stone initially ended with “If you fight a war long enough, you end up marrying the enemy.” This would have been more fitting – and also capped the racial tension that the whole movie exudes.
Without really delving into it too far, White’s racism stems from his time in Vietnam and inflects his war on crime in Chinatown, in a way that makes it much more personal than even the losses he’ll experience later. Surprisingly, in a film that could be brushed aside as an 1980s neo-noir crime flick, there’s more here about what it means to deal with our discrimination and experience than we would expect. Does it wrap everything up? Different audiences will find themselves more and less satisfied than others.
In the end, White rides out on his crusade, regardless of the costs. Somehow, he’s the only one left standing when the blood has been shed and the war is over.