`Year of the Dragon' presents lopsided portrait of Chinatown

It seems Hollywood has forgiven Michael Cimino for making ``Heaven's Gate,'' the megadud that lost some $44 million and helped to sink United Artists. Cimino has quickly gotten another chance at a major project -- more than some flopmongers ever receive -- and it's being released by MGM/UA, the hybrid studio that emerged when MGM bought up UA.

``Year of the Dragon'' shows Cimino on good behavior, in terms of efficiency if not good taste. The action moves relentlessly, the dialogue is direct, the characters all know they're in the same movie -- qualities that escaped ``Heaven's Gate'' in both its long and shortened versions. The film reportedly came in on time and on budget, too. As he showed in ``The Deer Hunter'' and ``Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,'' this director knows how to make a movie, and he does so when not carried away by ill-considered

ambitions.

But the new thriller has problems of its own, which go deeper than cinematic skill. Its metaphors are too obvious (as before, Cimino's analogy for death is more death) and its treatment of social problems is skin-deep. Although the screenplay throws sops to many cultural and ethnic groups, it's riddled with racist and sexist attitudes.

And the whole enterprise rests on a trite vision of urban life as, you guessed it, a jungle -- a view meant to justify the hero's Dirty Harry machismo as well as the prodigious violence that punctuates scene after scene.

Set in the Chinatown district of New York, the story centers on an obsessive cop. Convinced that recent killings are evidence of a ``Chinese Mafia,'' he throws the rulebook out the window in a vendetta-like hunt for its leaders. His reluctant ally is a Chinese-American newscaster who compromises her independence as a journalist. His key enemy is a smooth-talking member of the Chinatown underworld who stops at no atrocity to assert his will.

It's typical of unthinking Hollywood racism that only a Caucasian cop can save Chinatown from its evil elements. The only Asian-American lawman we meet in ``Year of the Dragon'' is a bumbler named Herbert, whose big scene is a lecture on the superiority of Chinese ancestors to Polish ones.

True, he gets to die a heroic death, but this seems a self-conscious nod to an ethnic group already defamed and exploited in any number of ways, including the portrait of Chinatown itself as a volcano of vice rooted in ``thousands of years'' of everyday Chinese corruption. (The action gets especially noxious when it shifts briefly to Asia, painting native Easterners as even more savage than their Westernized counterparts.) And in a movie full of Rambo-like references to the Vietnam war, it's embarrassin g when the script doesn't seem to know that Vietnam and China are different places.

Women fare no better in comparison to our zealous hero. His first ``love scene'' with the newscaster has more of rape than romance to it, and his long-suffering wife is seen as valiant but dispensable. The movie also deals in sexist nudity, unveiling its heroine while keeping the male contingent discreetly draped.

The bright side of ``Year of the Dragon'' is its technical pizazz. The pacing is on target, although the editing is intrusive, and the cinematography by Alex Thomson has a rich, moody glow in almost every scene -- recalling the lush imagery that kept ``Heaven's Gate'' from being a total disaster.

Mickey Rourke is decisive as the hero without mustering the authority that, say, Robert De Niro might have brought to the part; the gifted John Lone is ominously amiable as the chief villain; Ariane wrestles the newscaster part to a standstill without bringing it alive.

``Year of the Dragon'' is rated R, reflecting a lot of vulgar language as well as the aforementioned violence and sex.

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