"Year of the Dragon" is the kind of sprawling, grandiose mess that only Michael Cimino could make, a sometimes vivid, often hilariously overwrought thriller about cops, New York's Chinatown, and ultimately, about Cimino himself.

Chinatown is exploding in a tong war -- youth gangs murder the Unofficial Mayor (read: mob czar) of the neighborhood and even venture across Canal Street into territory traditionally reserved by the Mafia. Enter Stanley White (Mickey Rourke), Vietnam vet (Marines, of course), the most decorated flatfoot in the asphalt arroyo. He's tough, he's honest, and he Just Won't Quit till Chinatown is cleaned up.

Both the old and the new conspire against him. As we're endlessly reminded, he's got hundreds of years of history to contend with (it was the Chinese, you see, who invented the Mafia), as well as a young upstart named Joey Tai (John Lone) who jumps to the throne of the reigning "Triad," or family. His fellow cops won't help him -- corruption, for them, is peace -- and a TV reporter named Tracy Tzu (Ariane) gives him a big pain in the pancake, too.

In part, "Year of the Dragon" is an attempt by Cimino to return to his roots in the cop genre -- he cowrote "Magnum Force" and directed "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" for Clint Eastwood. Cimino has a flair for sequences (there's a spectacularly effective car chase/foot race that knocks the wind out of you), and a vague idea of what makes a killer line, like "Do I feel lucky today?" But in the script (which Cimino cowrote with Oliver Stone), the characters, particularly White, talk in nothing but killer lines.

Cimino's instincts are right -- the movie is outsized, and it needs baroque dialogue; you get the sense that he'd recognize the right dialogue if he heard it. But when he actually has to come up with it, the result is a series of outrageous hooters: "I've got scar tissue on my soul"; "I carried the cross with you, in Brooklyn and in Queens."

BMT to Golgotha, making stops in Flatbush, Flushing, Jamaica . . . all aboard!

Cimino defines the border between greatness and the mere desire for greatness -- he's got a mythopoeic streak as wide as Lake Erie. He's so busy trying to elevate his characters into symbols of the American Dream, and where it went wrong (in a word, Vietnam), that he never rounds them out. And he's a bear for detail, a sort of million-dollar research assistant who can't stop showing off his homework. "Year of the Dragon" is art-directed to death, the script larded with obscure irrelevancies: that Chinese music reads right to left, that Chinese weren't eligible for American citizenship until 1943 (which, in point of fact, isn't precisely right). Nothing in this movie breathes.

And Cimino is so in love with his own stuff, he leaves the actors out of the picture. Since his indelible cameo as an arsonist in "Body Heat," Mickey Rourke's great strength has been his cultivation of quiet: his soft-spoken muttering conveys a queer menace, and by doing nothing, he can suggest everything. Playing the agitation, the bruising rodomontade of Stanley White, saddled with a Halloween fright wig of white hair, he's just plain silly -- it's a staggering piece of miscasting. Lone is pretty but unconvincing as a mob boss -- his attempts to be sinister never seem like more than playacting. Finally, the film "introduces" a fashion model named Ariane, and for once you understand how Woody Allen feels when, hiding at his back table at Elaine's, he is "introduced" to Shepherd T. Manning of Manning's Muncie Chevrolet.

The movie is composed (by Cimino and cinematographer Alex Thomson) in deep, rich hues, but too much has been made of Cimino's "painterly" eye -- the movement of his big canvases, as the camera cranes against the grain of the mob, is impressively organized, but he's such a sucker for crowd scenes, the movie ends up looking cluttered. Admittedly, there's a vividness to some of the images (particularly the silhouettes of the climax, or a confrontation between Rourke and Lone that's shot with almost no fill-light). But there's also something show-offy about them -- they get between you and the story.

Cimino might make a good movie if he were forced to shoot someone else's script, and banned from hiring extras, but he'll never do it -- he's an auteur, and our best example of auteurism's limits. In "Year of the Dragon," everyone's always listing White's shortcomings -- selfish, arrogant, unfeeling, "nobody likes you" -- which has been how some people feel about Cimino; he is Stanley White, and "Heaven's Gate" was his Vietnam.

What's essential for Cimino, though, is that White is a noble jerk -- "You care too much, Stanley," one character says. When Cimino excuses White this way, he's excusing himself, the director who, in "Heaven's Gate," had two vast roller-skating rinks built in different parts of the country because he wanted a different quality of sunlight streaming through the door. It never seems to have occurred to him that he cares too much about the wrong things.