The late Michael Cimino is best remembered today as a cautionary tale. The director, who shot to the top of the Hollywood A-list after his Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter proved a massive critical and sizeable commercial hit in 1977—garnering nine Oscar nominations and winning six (including Best Picture and Best Director)—suffered an Icarus-like fall from grace following the disastrous production and release of his epic western Heaven’s Gate (1980).
The short version: so unwieldy and expensive was the production and so exhausting were the battles over final cut that by the time it flopped in theaters (earning only a little over $3 million off a $44 million budget) that not only did it greatly contribute to the collapse of its studio, United Artists, Heaven’s Gate is largely blamed for ushering out the auteur-driven ethos of its era, known as New Hollywood, which in turn led to the increasingly corporate driven culture of movies that has all but taken over the entire industry today.
Volumes have been written about his experience on that film and its aftermath—indeed, the section on Heaven’s Gate makes up the largest chunk of Charles Eton’s new definitive biography of the filmmaker, Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and the Price of a Vision—that they overshadow his earlier successes, while almost entirely blotting out the films he made afterwards.
Given how notorious Cimino became in the wake of it all, it’s somewhat surprising that he was given the opportunity to make another film, let alone four. Even more surprising is the fact that the first two of those films—1985’s Year of the Dragon and 1987’s The Sicilian—are not, as one might expect given the circumstances, small films, but epics of similar grandeur (if not production) to The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate.
Even though Heaven’s Gate made Cimino persona non grata with the major studios—with whom he wasn’t popular to begin with, the success of the similarly unwieldy (in terms of production) The Deer Hunter coming as a shock to everyone—he was still an undeniably talented director, one who producers outside of the majors assumed, half-correctly, would make for a good hired hand on productions in which he did not have control of the purse strings or final cut. In the years following Heaven’s Gate, Cimino was attached to both The Pope of Greenwich Village and Footloose, although he eventually left both projects.
Eventually, he was nabbed by gregarious Italian producer Dino DeLaurentis to adapt Robert Daley’s crime novel Year of the Dragon, about an obsessive New York City police captain who, tasked with ridding Chinatown of its out-of-control youth gangs, wages a full-on crusade against the powerful Chinese mafia. Though Cimino’s previous three films were heavy on masculine action and violence (his debut was the Clint Eastwood bank robber road movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), he considered the material too pulpy, and had trouble nailing down the script.
To fix this, he brought aboard a young Oliver Stone, best known as a screenwriter at that point. Stone was hesitant but agreed when Cimino got De Laurentis to agree to produce Stone’s script for Platoon in exchange for a reduced writing fee (this deal eventually fell apart, although when the Academy Award-winning movie did finally get made, Stone gave Cimino a thanks in the credits). Stone turned in a much-improved script, containing many of the themes he would become synonymous with (especially the lingering trauma of Vietnam, in which he famously served) and production got underway with Mickey Rourke (with whom Cimino had worked on Heaven’s Gate) in the lead.
When De Laurentis hired Cimino, he laid down some hard and fast ground rules: De Laurentis would keep a close eye on the $24 million production and had final cut. Cimino agreed, although in order to save face, he got De Laurentis to agree to give him final cut in his contract, even as he signed a second, secret letter relinquishing it to De Laurentis. (One thing that Eton’s biography makes very clear is that Cimino prioritized his reputation above all else.) Both men stayed true to their word, and the film was finished on time and on budget, with Cimino turning in a 134-minute cut that De Laurentis approved of.
Unfortunately, the smooth production did not result in the redemptive comeback for Cimino that De Laurentis had told him it would. While the film would go on to prove profitable (thanks mostly to the business it did internationally), it was hardly a hit. To say that the critical reception was divisive is an understatement. Vincent Canby wrote that it was “messy…[but] hypnotic” and Rex Reed called it “Exciting, explosive, daring and adventurous”; Leonard Maltin, on the other hand, charged it as being melodramatic and overstuffed, while Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review held it up as a work of “rabble rousing pulp, the kind that goes over well with subliterate audiences.” Cashier du Cinema named it the third best film of its year, and it was nominated for Best Foreign Film in France’s Caesar Awards. It was also nominated in all the major categories (save Worst Actor and Worst Script) at that year’s Razzie Awards.
Year of the Dragon is a very flawed film—for as brimming over with extraordinary set pieces and individual moments as the script is, it’s also loaded with cop drama tropes we’ve seen countless times. Mickey Rourke gives a passionate performance, although the attempt to age him up by about 15 years is unconvincing (lead actress Ariane Koizumi is, unfortunately, hopelessly stiff and unnatural). The exquisiteness of the setting and costuming is impeccable, even as some of the design choices are confusing: the story is set in the present, but several characters, including Rourke, dress and act like they’re in a ‘40s period piece (that being said, as anachronistic as Rourke’s get-up is, there are few characters that look as outright cool as he does in it).
There’s also the film’s depiction of race, the most controversial aspect of its release. Year of the Dragon was boycotted and even sued by various Chinese American and Asian American groups, who took offense to what they saw as a presiding sense of xenophobia, as well as the specific (and frequent) use of racist dialogue. They also feared that the film would lead to violent attacks of Chinatown residents, as well as hurt its economy. Ultimately, these charges—bolstered in no small part to similar criticisms of anti-Asian racism leveled at Cimino over the depiction of the Vietnamese in The Deer Hunter—led to a disclaimer being attached to the opening credits, which read:
This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian Americans and specifically Chinese American communities. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any association, organization, individual or Chinatown that exists in real life is accidental
As ever with such protests against art, the fear-mongering proved totally unfounded, although the criticisms of the film’s content are not without some merit. The movie makes it very clear that Rourke’s character is a racist, even as it asks you to sympathize with his reasons for being one. It attempts to balance its depiction of the Chinese criminal underworld by introducing noble Chinese American characters—Koizumi’s dogged reporter/love interest and a single undercover cop allied with Rourke. But they come off as little more than tokens, especially given what ends up happening to both.
With all of that in mind, it’s amazing how well Year of the Dragon still succeeds. As is so often the case with cinema in hindsight, history has proved the French right and the uber-smug Kael and useless Razzies wrong. Those aforementioned set pieces—including an assassination during a Chinese New Year parade, a shootout in a glamourous restaurant, a brutal domestic slaying and the resulting car/foot chase, a short jaunt to a Chinese military base (wherein we witness a gruesome act that was clearly an influence on one of the most memorable scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s, a vocal fan of the film, Kill Bill), and the climactic duel-to-the-death on a lonely industrial bridge—are as astounding as anything in The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. If the movie isn’t as grand as Heaven’s Gate (and really, what is?), it still looks like it cost triple what it did. Say what you will about Cimino’s relationship with budgets, the man makes sure every dollar ends up on screen.
The same can be said of his follow up of two years later, The Sicilian, even if it’s much harder to find other positive things to say about it. That films is adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1984 novel of the same name, which takes place during the one section of The Godfather and sees Michael Corleone befriend the famous Italian bandit/revolutionary Salvatore Giuliano in his quest to liberate Sicily from the corrupt rule of the mafia, the church and landowning counts. The rights to Puzo’s novel were purchased by the newly formed production company Gladden Entertainment, but because Paramount Pictures owned the character rights to The Godfather, they were forced to excise any mention of the Corleones, and instead focus solely on Guiliano.
They initially reached out to Francis Ford Coppola, among several others, to direct, before eventually landing on Cimino after hearing that he’d done a good job on Year of the Dragon. Unfortunately for Gladden, they were unaware of the secret agreement he’d made with De Laurentis regarding right to final cut, so Cimino was able to get that clause added to his contract when he signed on, a decision that would lead to trouble down the road.
As with Year of the Dragon, Cimino felt no personal attachment to the material and did not care for the script. As he’d done with Stone, he’d reached out to a name writer to reshape it, in this case, renowned literary star Gore Vidal (this would also prove a source of great consternation later on, as the script’s original writer, Steven Shegan ended up getting sole credit, leading Vidal to unsuccessfully sue).
French actor Christopher Lambert was cast in the lead role and shooting occurred on location in Sicily. Although the movie ended up going slightly over budget (owing mostly to elements outside of Cimino’s control), it was another relatively smooth shoot. However, that did nothing to negate the film’s core issues, including a jumbled, frankly boring, and at times laughable script (some of the dialog—Oh Marone!) and, especially, the terrible lead performance from Lambert (an actor who can be a lot of fun in frothy roles, but is deadly in serious ones).
As with The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Cimino battled with producers over the length of the movie. Given that he had final cut in his contract, he might have been able to get his version released, had it not been for a boneheaded gambit he’d made early on in the fight with producers: Cimino devised a strategy where his ‘preferred’ cut would come in at the length the producers preferred, only he took out all the action scenes he knew they’d want in it. This way, he thought, when they demanded a new cut with those scenes included, they would have to accept the extended length. Unfortunately for Cimino, this plan backfired. The producers called in a favor with Stanley Donen (yes, the Stanley Donen who directed Singin’ in the Rain) and had him cut a new, shorter version. The matter went to arbitration with the Director’s Guild, who were set to rule in Cimino’s favor until they found out about his bad faith ruse and sided with the producers. A shortened cut of the movie was released to dismal reviews and worse box office. Unlike Heaven’s Gate, which eventually received deserved critical reappraisal once Cimino’s cut of the movie found its way to audiences, the extended version of The Sicilian released oversees did not change anyone’s opinion.
Whereas Year of the Dragon deserves a similar reappraisal, The Sicilian is a true flop. However, it still contains some legitimately impressive set pieces, as well as good cinematography and an operatic quality that belies its relatively modest budget. For his many, many faults, it’s impossible to deny how naturally gifted a director Cimino is. As far as American directors of his generation—hell, as far as American directors as a whole—an argument can be made that he’s second only to Francis Ford Coppola (who referred to Cimino as his “paisan” when presenting him with the Best Director statue during the 51st Academy Awards) in imbuing his frame with a sense of the epic, even if Cimino failed where Coppola succeeded with Puzo’s source material (a failure that can partially be explained by Cimino’s comparative lack of interest in his Italian-American heritage).
It’s easy to discount Year of the Dragon and especially The Sicilian as work for hire, given that both are adaptations of pulpy best-sellers that Cimino felt little personal connection to. Yet, if you know even a little about Cimino’s career, it’s impossible not to suss out just such a connection in them. In Year of the Dragon, Rourke’s police captain nearly destroys himself (as well as his career and personal relationships) in a quixotic quest to do what he knows is right. The Sicilian presents its title folk hero as a calculating man intent on building up his own legend in order to wage his own crusade, one which can only end in his martyrdom.
A line from the former movie sums Cimino up perfectly. When a supervisor charges Rourke’s indefatigable super cop with caring too much, it might as well be Cimino himself who replies, “How can anybody care too much?”