DVD Reviews for 6/3: Viva Dean, McQueen, Rourke and Knievel

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/03/05 14:04:31

In the aftermath of the financial debacle that was “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino could have simply picked himself up, dusted himself off and worked to regain his standing in the industry with a series of anonymous and relatively inexpensive films that would have shown Hollywood that he could once again be trusted as the guiding force behind a major film. (Hey, it worked for Francis Ford Coppola in the decade after “One From the Heart.”) Instead, he disappeared from view for several years and when he returned, it was to team up with another industry bad boy, producer Dino DeLaurentis (then in the middle of a string of expensive flops that included “Hurricane,” “Flash Gordon” and “Dune”), to come up with a violent and flashy cop thriller in which the central character was perhaps the most unapologetically racist character to serve as the hero of a film since “The Searchers.” Needless to say, most critics were appalled, audiences stayed away in droves and while Cimino did direct a few more films, his days as Hollywood’s Golden Boy, which began when he scored Oscar gold with “The Deer Hunter,” were officially over. The punch-line, of course, is that the movie in question turned out to be an absolute masterpiece, perhaps Cimino’s finest work as a director and one of the best cop thrillers of the 1980's.

The film in question is 1985's “Year of the Dragon” and on the surface, it looks like a fairly standard cops vs. gangsters drama. As it begins, Chinese gangster Joey Tai (John Lone), thanks to his brutal methods of eliminating the competition, has become the undisputed leader of both the Chinese mob in New York and their lucrative heroin markets. Stanley White (Mickey Rourke, in one of his great performances), a veteran New York cop, is appointed to be in charge of the Chinatown area and his makes it his single-minded mission to bring Tai down, no matter what the cost. The twist is that White, despite technically serving as the hero of the story, is an absolutely hateful monster–he is violent, self-centered, cruel to both his long-suffering wife and his reporter mistress (model Ariane, in her first and seemingly only acting role) and, as a result of his experiences in Vietnam, filled with an absolute loathing towards all Asians. Instead of trying to smooth over White’s rough edges, Cimino, co-writer Oliver Stone (and wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the script conferences between those two notoriously headstrong guys?) and Rourke ramp them up even further than they were in the book to the point where some viewers may find themselves with the more outwardly socially acceptable Tai.

Aside from the weak performance from Ariane (whose facility in doing nude scenes seems to have been the sole qualification for her hiring), “Year of the Dragon” is a consistently intriguing and exciting thriller that has, unlike most films of its period, grown better over the years. Although his oddball hair can be distracting, Rourke goes all-out in playing White and is so compelling and charismatic that you can’t help but find him fascinating despite his general loathsomeness. Lone is more than his equal as Tai–whatever happened to him?–and Caroline Kava is also strong as White’s wife. The screenplay manages an effective balance between the over-the-top action scenes (including the unforgettable climax in which White and Tai face off for the last time) and the quieter scenes depicting life in Chinatown. Featuring a commentary track from the generally reclusive Cimino (who hasn’t made a film since 1997's barely-released “The Sunchasers”) and a bargain-level price, this is a must-own disc and it will hopefully lead to a long-overdue reevaluation of both the film and its director.

Written by Oliver Stone and Michael Cimino. Directed by Michael Cimino. Starring Mickey Rourke, John Lone, Ariane, Raymond J. Barry and Caroline Kava. 1985. 134 minutes. Rated R. A Warner Home Video release. $14.95.


BEDTIME FOR BONZO (Universal Home Video. $12.98): Although this 1952 Ronald Reagan comedy, in which he plays a scientist who teams up with a monkey to settle the whole heredity vs. environment argument that had previously fueled any number of Three Stooges shorts, is generally slated (usually by people who have never seen it) as one of the all-time worst films because of its star and premise, it is actually a better-than-average comedy that still holds up pretty well today. Although this was hardly Reagan’s greatest moment as an actor (that would be his mesmerizing turn as the villain in Don Siegel’s “The Killers”–both his first bad-guy role and his last on-screen appearance), he did demonstrate a flair for light comedy that he rarely got to demonstrate in his other film work. Besides, if we all go out and buy this one, it may spur on the eventual release of “That Hagen Girl,” a bizarrely bad 1947 melodrama in which his character, a crusading liberal attorney, falls for high-school senior Shirley Temple, unaware that he might be her heretofore unknown father.

BOOGEYMAN (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. $27.98): This PG-13 horror craptacular, on the other hand, is as bad as you have heard. Between this and the equally shabby “The Grudge,” executive-producer Sam Raimi is in serious danger of losing all the credibility that he earned among genre fans over the years for the classic “Evil Dead” films.

THE COMPLETE JAMES DEAN COLLECTION (Warner Home Video.$68.92) Let’s face it, if James Dean hadn’t gotten killed in that car accident a half-century ago, he probably would have wound up with a career similar to Dennis Hopper’s–long bouts of personal weirdness and bill-paying films along the lines of “Meet the Deedles” punctuated by the occasional brilliant performance to remind viewers of his considerable acting skills. Well, he didn’t and Warners capitalizes on that tragic anniversary with long-overdue special editions of his three major films–“East of Eden” (making its DVD debut), “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant” (a repackaging of the previously-available version)–along with a number of documentaries and other special features, including (on “Rebel”) the infamous safe-driving PSA that he filmed just before his fatal crash..

THE ESSENTIAL STEVE MCQUEEN COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $68.92): This year also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the passing of another icon of cinematic cool and Warners celebrates it as well with a box collecting six of his key titles. The pick hit of the set is, of course, the 2-disc edition of his most famous film, the 1968 cop thriller “Bullitt” but the other selections aren’t too shabby either: Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 epic “The Getaway” (among the features are a “virtual commentary” which splices together archival interviews with McQueen and Peckinpah), the poker drama “The Cincinnati Kid,” the Devil’s Island prison drama “Papillon,” the WW II tale “Never So Few” and one of his final films, the 1980 revisionist western “Tom Horn”.

THE FRONT PAGE (Universal Home Video. $12.98): It isn’t the best adaptation of the legendary Ben Hecht-Charles McArthur newspaper comedy (that would be the 1941 classic “His Girl Friday”)–truth be told, it isn’t even a very good movie. (Legend has it that co-star Carol Burnett was once on an airplane and when it was announced that it was going to be the in-flight movie, she supposedly got up and apologized to her fellow passengers.) However, this 1974 adaptation does feature the unbeatable combination of co-stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and director Billy Wilder and their presence alone makes it worth a look for their fans.

THE GARY COOPER COLLECTION/THE MARLON BRANDO COLLECTION (Universal Home Video. $26.98 each): Going into their archives, Universal gives us a pair of affordably-priced collections of films in their possession featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. On the surface, the Cooper set is the more impressive: the titles–“Beau Geste,” “Design for Living,” “The General Died at Dawn,” “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” and “Peter Ibbetson”–are all strong (especially the first two) and all of them are making their DVD debuts. However, the Brando set–comprising of the less-heralded “The Appaloosa,” “A Countess From Hong Kong,” “Night of the Following Day” and “The Ugly American”–has some interesting moments as well; “Night of the Following Day” is an unusually nasty kidnapping drama and while “Countess” is pretty much an artistic failure (proving once again that Brando tended to be at sea when confronted with straightforward comedy), it is an intriguing curio simply for its pairing of Brando and Sophia Loren under the tutelage of Charles Chaplin, directing what would prove to be his final film.

JULES AND JIM (The Criterion Collection.$39.95): Francois Truffaut’s beloved 1959 drama about two wildly different men (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) whose friendship is strained when both fall in love with the same woman–since she is played by Jeanne Moreau, you can’t really blame them–gets the Criterion treatment. Among the features on this 2-disc set are two commentaries, featuring collaborators, scholars and Moreau herself, archival interviews and a new transfer of the film that has been supervised by original cinematographer Raoul Coutard.

KANSAS CITY BOMBER (Warner Home Video. $14.95): Back in the days before “Maxim” and cable television, 14-year-old boys not old enough to sneak into a porno film or purchase a copy of “Playboy” needed to find another source for pop-culture cheesecake. I have no doubt that this 1972 drama, which looks at the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby through the eyes (among other body parts) of Raquel Welch, helped many such lads in their transition from geeky childhood to equally geeky manhood. Those picking it up for nostalgia purposes will be relieved to discover that, like Welch herself, it still holds up pretty well today. (Another similar film, the boneheaded 1978 Barbara Eden vehicle “Harper Valley PTA” also makes its DVD debut this week as well.)

MOONLIGHTING: SEASONS ONE AND TWO (Lion’s Gate Home Video. $49.95): Yeah, this 1985-1989 series, a screwball comedy in which Bruce Willis (in his star-making role) and Cybill Shepard played the bickering co-heads of a detective agency, burned itself out pretty quickly and was actually painful to watch towards the end. However, when it clicked–as it did in the episodes collected here–it was (and remains) one of the funniest and freshest shows to ever hit the airwaves. Hopefully, the release of this set (including all of the original soundtrack songs) means that Season Three, featuring the legendary “Atomic Shakespeare” episode (done entirely in iambic pentameter) is on the horizon.

MY BRILLIANT CAREER (Blue Underground. $29.95): Acclaimed Australian actress Judy Davis kicked off her own brilliant career with this 1979 film from Gillian Armstrong. In it, she plays a headstrong 16-year-old girl at the dawn of the 20th century who yearns to make her way in the world as a writer, only to find her dreams crushed under the weight of family pressures and her love for the wealthy Sam Neill. This 2-disc set is filled with bonus material that sheds new light on this film, especially the revelation that Davis was not particularly fond of either her role or her appearance (which might explain her absence from the Amstrong-only commentary track or the contemporary interviews).

OVER THE TOP (Warner Home Video. $14.95): God, I miss the late, lamented Cannon Films. At the same time that they were funding such serious artistic fare as “Shy People,” “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” and Jean-Luc Godard’s infamous riff on “King Lear,” they actually paid Sylvester Stallone $12 million on the assumption that audiences would flock to see him as a trucker trying to bond with his estranged son while working his way towards winning the world championship of . . . arm wrestling. For those who missed it in the theaters in 1987 (not too surprising since it bombed like nobody’s business) or on cable in the years since (a little more surprising since it has played there approximately six billion times), a viewing is mandatory–if only to see the sheer insanity that the star system can inspire in Hollywood.

ST. IVES (Warner Home Video. $14.95): Although he pretty much pissed away the latter part of his career on endless sequels and rip-offs of “Death Wish,” Charles Bronson was capable of doing a lot more than that and the release of the 1976 caper film proves that. In it, he plays a struggling writer who agrees, for a good payday, to serve as the go-between in a deal involving the return of some stolen plans for a foolproof robbery–things, of course, don’t go entirely as planned. One of Bronson’s best films, it was one of those rare times when he was able to work with both a nifty script and a top-notch supporting cast, including John Houseman (as the mastemind behind the robbery),Maximillan Schell, Jeff Goldblum and Jacqueline Bisset.

VIVA KNIEVEL (Warner Home Video. $14.95): In his first (and, needless to say, only) attempt at big-screen stardom, 1970's daredevil icon Evel Knievel appeared in a film in which he played himself (not very well) and teamed up with his two-fisted, hard-drinking mentor/mechanic (inexplicably played by Gene Kelly) and a “feminist” photographer (Lauren Hutton) to defeat an evil conspiracy involving, I kid you not, Leslie Nielsen, Dabney Coleman and the irrepressible Marjoe Gortner. Although the film is chock-full with ultra-campy elements–such as the craptacular title song, the hilarious bit in which a drugged-up Kelly has a psychedelic freak-out in a Mexican prison and several appearances by Frank Gifford–the best bit comes at the beginning; Knievel breaks into a children’s hospital ward after hours to bring Evel Knievel toys to the kids and is rewarded with the heartwarming sight of a kid throwing away his crutches and saying “I learned to walk again because of you, Evel.” There is a very good possibility that this might be the second-greatest American movie ever made. (By an amazing coincidence, I will be dealing with the greatest next week, so be sure to tune in then.)

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