With a new, brutal boss heading up the Chinese mafia, tough-minded New York cop Stanley White is put in charge of Chinatown, a man left racist by his treatment in Vietnam. As both are fully willing to break their own codes of honour, a bloody clash awaits them.
His first film after the debacle of Heaven’s Gate finds Michael Cimino bullish and clumsy. If that long, artful Western was precision as madness, this thriller charting the brute techniques of a racist cop is full of damnable self-righteousness and tough guy action. The plot, conceived and written by a young Oliver Stone, is restlessly complicated, but can be boiled down to a trite extension of the ‘Nam fallout of The Deer Hunter — veteran soldier turned cop keeps his personal war going by taking on a Chinese gangster on his own turf. Mickey Rourke’s decorated former hero is so conditioned in his bigotry he can’t locate the difference between the Vietnamese and the Triad gang led by John Lone’s Chinese murderer. White, mainly through an unconvincing relationship with Ariane’s reporter, regales us with dull spiels of self-justification.
The film seethes with racism, so much so it is hard to decipher where Cimino and Stone are reflecting upon White’s state of mind, and where they have spilled over into enrolling themselves by association. Their film has a mucky, murky, unclean feel, which assists in the building of tension, fired by Stone’s terse dialogue, but still leaves a bad taste. Cimino gives it a thick, dense look, picked out by smears of neon. Everything from the style to the casting feels grubby and worn.
Not that Rourke or Lone don’t fulfil their part of the deal, they are charismatic in opposite ways: one full of fire, the other ice. Rourke, especially, serves up that variety of smouldering anger all his own. It is also often forgotten how good Cimino is with an action sequence, hitting a Peckinpah-like frenzy with a shoot-out between White and two punkettes in a devastated Chinese restaurant, and the film takes on the lines of a Western showdown as White stalks his foe to New York’s dockside. For all its sound and fury, it’s messages on the chaos of race relations in America remain lumpy and leering.