Times Film Critic

Behind the gimcrack gift shops, the poultry markets with mahogany-colored ducks and the pagoda-tiered tourist restaurants, real power exists inside Chinatowns--not all of it benign. In "Year of the Dragon" (citywide) Michael Cimino breaks apart this honeycomb, exposing its hidden cells to light.

Since, with all his patent obsessions and his wobbly flights of reasoning, Cimino is a blazingly gifted movie maker, he has succeeded astonishingly. "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.

Cimino and co-screenwriter Oliver Stone have rebuilt almost all of Robert Daley's novel from the ground up. Still set in New York, its romantic triangle is now police captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) "the most decorated policeman on the force"; Connie, his outspoken, caring wife (Caroline Kava, in one of the picture's two best performances), and Tracy Tzu, a feisty Chinese-American television anchorwoman (ex-model Ariane).

Before the film is 15 minutes old, we've witnessed three bloody acts of violence, escalating in scale and all carried out by young gang members. (Make no mistake, this is violent melodrama.) Newly made captain of the Chinatown precinct, Rourke has been told to clean up these marauding youth gangs. In an area where diplomacy is crucial, Rourke's appointment is odd; he's as retiring as Jimmy Breslin and he has a boiling point of about 11 degrees.

Matched against him is the elegant Joey Tai (John Lone), restaurant owner and conduit for enormous cocaine transactions. Although they are on absolutely opposing sides, these are the film's two young Turks, both headstrong and arrogant, fighting two entrenched systems that have not changed for generations. In the end, nothing has changed. The old ways prevail--symbolized by the ceremonial street funerals that bracket the picture.

A lot of the film stands or falls by these two characters, and although you can feel Rourke fighting to give his every scene life, he can do no better than his character, described best by his wife as "an arrogant, self-centered, condescending S.O.B." In true Cimino-hero fashion, he must also drag Vietnam into every encounter, since he's a veteran with the taste of defeat still in his mouth. His aggression/attraction for Tracy is another movie throwback, to the bone-bruising sexual encounters of "The Fountainhead." (It's not surprising that Cimino at one time wanted to remake Ayn Rand's book; they share similar philosophies.)

The one-dimensional quality of Rourke's character leaves the field to the charismatic Lone. Speaking both English and Chinese, he dominates his every scene (as he did as the Neanderthal in "Iceman"). It is almost not possible to watch another actor when Lone is on the screen.

With its potholes and its excesses, why does "Year of the Dragon" linger so long and so hauntingly? Because it's part "documentary," part grand opera. Working on locations in Vancouver, northernmost Thailand, Mott Street and Brooklyn, but mostly on a sound stage in Wilmington, N.C., Cimino's technicians have created a Chinatown of mythic proportions.

Wolf Kroeger (who performed similar wonders for "Ladyhawke") has designed sets that are at the same time impeccably real and soaringly imaginative. During the Shanghai Palace restaurant massacre sequence, you almost expect to pull back another quarter-inch and be shown that it is a set. The sense of created drama is palpable.

Everything is gained when the cameraman, Alex Thomson, operates his own camera (as his credit reads, proudly and uniquely) in a performance as passionate as any actor's.

Finally, the editing of Francoise Bonnot, who has done Costa-Gavras' films as well as "The Tin Drum," is breathtaking and singular. Time and time again she cuts away from the speaker to the scene at hand: a synthetically sensual nightclub singer or details of a cluttered Chinese social club that tell us viscerally about the moment.

"Year of the Dragon" aims at "The Godfathers" slavishly, but falls short (Paul Scaglione's Italian drug kingpin even looks like Brando's Corleone had he lived 20 years past that tomato patch). However, the film leaves us feeling that we've been smuggled behind the scenes of a closed world. "Year of the Dragon" is towering, claustrophobic and exhausting.

Its reality is enhanced by the performances of so many Asian actors (particularly Dennis Dun as the rookie cop, "Chan Is Missing's" Victor Wong as the owner of the Shanghai Palace restaurant and Steven Chen as the indignant soybean basement worker). The intelligent use of partial subtitles lets us hear the sharp inflections, the anger and the explosions of their speech for ourselves. David Mansfield's stunningly original music gives us an entire score set in Chinatown without the sound of a crashing gong--how delightful.)

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