Lau, Scorsese Squander Opportunity on 'Green Dragons'

Directed by: Andrew Lau, Andrew Loo; Runtime: 94 minutes
Grade: D-

Ray Liotta looks as if he's been crying on the cover artwork for Revenge of the Green Dragons, and it's easy to understand how that might be the case after finishing director Andrew Lau's return to organized crime drama. Expectations run high when a name like The Departed's Martin Scorsese aids in the production of the latest film from the director of Infernal Affairs, as if cosmic forces deemed the movie-going public worthy of seeing what the two minds could concoct together in a fresh thriller about Chinese gang activity in the streets of New York. It's a surprise -- disheartening, really -- to see such a blandly acted, tirelessly formulaic, and clumsily thematic waste of potential from these two voices who have largely defined the genre, halfheartedly showing cinematic flourishes confirming their involvement while adding nothing of substance to the equation. Even Liotta playing the almost-literal opposite of his character from Goodfellas doesn't really make a dent.

Revenge of the Green Dragons starts out by depicting the state of affairs for the New York Chinese underworld in 1989, with a pair of children, orphaned immigrant Sonny and his "adoptive" brother Steven, getting roped into organized crime by frequently dodging fights with the Green Dragons in and around their school. As an aftereffect of a particularly brutal incident where they didn't get away, Steven actually finds himself a recruit into the gang, to which Sonny follows shortly behind. They learn the ropes of how things work -- fighting, gun work, obeying orders -- which leads to the point where they're required to kill someone in a somewhat ceremonious initiation. Years pass, the gang grows and organizes, and the boys grow into higher-level enforcers for the Green Dragons with expected temperaments: as the once-battered Steven (Kevin Wu) violently lashes out and makes mistakes, Sonny (Justin Chon) calmly does his job with as little conflict as possible. This continues as the Green Dragons dabble in drugs, battle rival gangs, and earn the attention of FBI investigator Michael Bloom (Ray Liotta).

Despite the fact that the general atmosphere focused on '90s-era Chinese immigrants derives from an article published in the New Yorker by Fredric Dannen, there's so much of Revenge of the Green Dragons that lands unnaturally flat in setting up the young boys' ascent through the gang. Director Lau lathers on an odious, hollow representation of America's perception of foreigners, needlessly provoking instead of enriching whatever points it'd like to make about racial bias and mistreatment. There's enough wrong with the operations of the gang atmosphere itself, however, that dwelling on that real-world aspect isn't really necessary: writers Michael Di Jiacomo and co-director Andrew Loo hurl every gangster cliche in the book at Sonny and Steven's environment, from young kids loading guns to oblivious patsies and point-of-no-return murders. Everything's dressed up with scenes of violence that are both volatile and entirely banal, probably done in hopes that stylized stabbing and dismembering might elevate the material's gravity. It doesn't.

Glimmers of Scorsese and Lau can be spotted throughout Revenge of the Green Dragons' cinematic style, from the colorful introduction to the area's six gangs to black-and-white still frames that fake an archival look, but the entire film desperately lacks what elevates both filmmakers: characterization. There isn't a distinctive personality among the entire batch, whether it's Sonny and Steven's entirely predictable development into a romantic and loose-cannon respectively or the largely forgettable horde of Green Dragons, White Tigers, and other gang members. Some of that comes from questionable one-dimensional performances across the board, but it also comes from an inability to draw empathy for the "bad guys" and invite someone to really explore the characters' outlook on the crime syndicate. The complicated psyche of a Chan Wing-yan or a Henry Hill doesn't exist here, only the faint sympathetic conflict in Sonny's good-natured head as he explores romance with an innocent girl who could stir up conflict with the Dragons.

Without many distinguishing characteristics beyond a heavy-handed depiction of the era's sociopolitical climate, the entirety of Revenge of the Green Dragons plays out as little more than a blood-soaked imitation of the crime-drama films made by the names attached to this production, something even more obvious upon the arrival of the film's hokey last-minute twist. The mortal chaos generated by the Green Dragons' escalating influences and vendettas reaches this abrupt conclusion that just kinda ... happens, matter-of-factly justifying the film's title, without much dramatic build-up or true impact once the lights and cuffs start flying. There's no ironic glorification or gritty commentary to bolster things once all's said and done, either, only the shrug-worthy point that America's "Wild West" of opportunistic crime can easily find immigrants missing some teeth and fingers, if they don't end up with a bullet in the head first. Lacking little new to see or significant to say through its inspired-by-reality premise, things I'd expect from the filmmakers involved, there's little point in enduring this Green Dragon's abuse.

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