Revenge of the Green Dragons

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/25/14 15:55:32

"Good, if not great, grindhouse."
3 stars (Average)

Don't let some of the pedigree that "Revenge of the Green Dragons" can whip out fool you - executive producer/"presenter" Martin Scorsese and co-director Andrew Lau have made some transcendent gangster movies, but this one is more or less the sort of lurid fare its name suggests. This is not an argument against it, mind you; what better way is there to tell the story of an Asian-American street gang than by bringing some Hong Kong style to old-school grindhouse?

The Green Dragons recruited Steven Wong and his foster brother Sonny early, when they were middle-schoolers fairly fresh off the boat in 1982. Seven years later, they've moved up; Sonny (Justin Chon) is handling collections, while the more fiery Steven (Kevin Wu) brandishes a knife. It roughly parallels the gang's leaders, clean-cut Paul Wrong (Harry Shum Jr.) and his right-hand-man Chen Chung (Leonard Wu), who know that if they keep things relatively clean, the NYPD will mostly assign rookie cops, even if one guy at the FBI (Ray Liotta) is starting to sniff around due to a general belief that immigration is a ticking time bomb.

The film is based upon actual people and events, but it doesn't really need to be; while it may not follow the gangster-movie template exactly, there is not a lot to the movie that audiences have not seen before. If anything, the screenplay by Michael Di Jiacomo and co-director Andrew Loo primarily distinguishes itself via exceptional cynicism: There is never much effort made to build the Green Dragons or other gangs up as social structures offering some sort of honor, unity, or camaraderie; they are assemblies of thugs from minute one, appealing mainly because the alternative seems to be exploitation that is tantamount to slavery.

Given how up front the filmmakers are with these gangs' entirely self-serving nature, it's perhaps not surprising that bits of the movie ring kind of hollow. When Sonny's narration is dissing some of the other gangs, it sounds a bit like bluster because there's nothing to his professed loyalty - at one point he says they worship Paul like a god, but it's hard to see that cult of personality, especially when the movie starts turning on things that don't fit in as either cold rationality or operatic stories of divided loyalty.

Part of the trouble is that Justin Chon can't do a lot with some really hackneyed narration, although he's got a presence that grows on the audience as the film goes on, giving the impression of being level-headed even as he winds up being emotionally driven because he is forming connections with people. Kevin Wu gets to play Steven as a bit more of a hothead, and does all right there. Similarly, Harry Shum Jr. doesn't misstep as Paul Wong, although he doesn't quite live up to being worshiped. It would have been great to have Eugenia Yuan play a more direct role as the "Snake Head Mama" who is apparently the power behind the gang. Similarly, there seems to be a missed opportunity with Jin Auyeun and Billy Magnussen as the rookie cop team that pairs a passionate Chinese-American with a kind of dim-seeming white guy. Ray Liotta at times seems to just show up, but he's also playing the part with some awareness that Agent Bloom is just showing up himself.

Directors Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Andrew Loo have the same sort of ability to recognize what sort of movie they're making, and that's probably why even when the hollow moments of the film don't feel flat. They don't go in for self-parody, but when it's time for some violence, they're more likely to go or the throat than stand back. They and Di Jiacomo have things to say about how immigration can be a trap, especially during this period (news clips track how American public opinion shifted from seeing immigrants as being brave but sadly exploited to seeing them as parasites), but they are keenly aware that the audience is here for bloddy mayhem and shocking reversals, and they give the audience what they want without seeming to pander.

Andrew Lau does what he can to make things look great - he infuses what is a low-budget movie by American standards with a fair amount of the style one expects from Hong Kong crime - but there's only so much he and Loo can do without a really exceptional central performance or an unusually clever hook beyond how you don't often see movies like this with an Asian-American cast. That environment doesn't hurt the movie at all, but it's not quite enough to put it up with the great gangster epics.

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