Revenge of the Green Dragons (TIFF 2014 Review)

Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014)

Dir: Andrew Lau, Andrew Loo

A stylized crime film with real world roots and a varied international cast, Revenge of the Green Dragons seeks to mythologize Chinese-American gangs of 1980’s New York with the same scope and craftsmanship that Martin Scorsese brought to his peak-period gangster films. Despite Scorsese serving as producer here and the presence of co-director Andrew Lau (who previously made Infernal Affairs, the fine Hong Kong pic upon which The Departed was based), Green Dragons falls shy of greatness and barely rises above mediocrity throughout its relatively brief runtime.

The premise is great – Chinese immigrants are brought to America by an enterprising mob boss who has them work off their immense debt as basically indentured servants. The Green Dragons are just one of the many gangs that pop up in Queens, New York in the wake of this mass immigration and they battle for control of the lucrative underworld. The rival gangs have equally colourful names and distinctive styles of dress, bringing a Warriors-like flair to this ostensibly true story. The movie narrows its focus to adoptive brothers Sonny and Steven (played as adults by Justin Chon and Kevin Wu), two immigrants who are pulled into the Green Dragons at a young age and are swept up in the wave of violence and crime.

The problems, both for the main characters and the film itself, start almost immediately. While the film has a lush, rich look and was shot on location in New York, the dialogue is tin-eared and full of clichés (an example of the frequent speechifying: “There’s a storm coming and I don’t know of any umbrella that’s gonna keep the city dry.”). Worse still, the movie careens quickly around characters and time frames, never giving the audience a chance to become truly invested. The reasons for Steven joining the gang are unclear – he’s basically tortured by the Green Dragons as a young child and then immediately becomes a badass, waving a gun around and forsaking his long-suffering mother. Sonny, the lead character, quickly follows suit. There’s lots of talk about The American Dream and building a better future (while Reagan’s anti-immigration policies symbolically play on background TVs) but it seems like Sonny and Steven left a decent, hard-working life to live in a shithole flophouse with violent murderous gang members. They’d already made it to America and had a foothold, but decided to steal the American Dream instead of earn it honestly (if such a thing can be done).

From Eugenia Yuen as big boss Snakehead Mama to Harry Shum Jr. as Green Dragons leader Paul Wong, most of the actors seem too young for their roles and lacking in necessary grit to bring appropriate gravitas. Ray Liotta shows up as a racist detective in scenes that are seemingly out of another movie – maybe he was brought in after the fact to appear as a name on the poster? His character disappears for long stretches of the film, returning periodically to make us nostalgic for all the better movies he’s starred in. The plot flits around in equal measure, without ever giving the audience a reason to care about the slow motion gunplay and numerous double- and triple-crosses.

One of the main characters is dispatched in such a perfunctory manner that I wondered if he’d miraculously spring back to life at some point and receive a proper death scene. I’m sure this sequence was inspired by Joe Pesci’s baseball bat death scene in Casino (20-year old spoiler alert!), but here it serves only as a reminder of better films. As Revenge of the Green Dragons reaches its pitched and bloody climax, it evokes both Infernal Affairs and The Departed in the way that the carefully constructed house of cards that these criminals have built comes crashing down around their heads (which could also be said of the endings of Goodfellas, Casino, and most other crime films ever made). Once again, the audience is reminded that they’re watching a copy of a copy, an experience made all the more disheartening by the fact that the original artists were involved in the making of this dim facsimile.

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