Rarely have gangsters been depicted in cinema beyond Italian or Irish lineage. When the mob is brought into the conversation, more than likely such classics as The Godfather or Goodfellas come to mind. The Martin Scorsese produced Revenge of the Green Dragons pulls the curtain back on the lesser known Chinese gangsters that ruled Queens in the 1980s. Unfortunately, however, lack of focus and ugly storytelling does little to bring the subject matter into exciting territory.
Our journey begins in 1983 where we meet Sonny and Steven, two Chinese illegal immigrant children who are forced into joining the Green Dragons. This particular Chinese gang is one of six in Queens. Among the typical mob duties of collecting money from local business owners, the Dragons partake in the importing of Chinese immigrants illegally into the U.S. The boys learn the ins and outs of life as a Green Dragon, growing up to take on more responsibilities in the seedy Chinese gang underworld.
Fast forward a few years, the boys are all grown up. Sonny (Justin Chon), loyal yet yearning for a better life, has been taken under the wing of the leader Paul (Harry Shum Jr.), while Steven (Kevin Wu), a bit of a loose cannon, has found his calling under the supervision of the second in command Chen (Leonard Wu). As the Green Dragons find themselves in contention with a rival gang, FBI Agent Michael Bloom (Ray Liotta) is hot on their tail while Sonny and Steven get caught up in a whirlwind of bullets, revenge, and devious plotting.
It sounds like your perfect setup, but unfortunately the movie is as thin as the stereotypical foundation it is based upon. Although Revenge of the Green Dragons makes for a unique spin on the gangster genre with its ties to illegal Chinese immigration, this nugget of perspective is underutilized to the plots advantage. Competent enough to complete the gangster film checklist – double crossing, drug deals, encroaching on enemy turf, etc. – there is nothing excitingly fresh to make Revenge of the Green Dragons stand out from its gangster movie predecessors.
Not only did the film fall short in personality, but so did its cliché characters. Most of the acting either felt very melodramatic or terribly wooden. The dialogue isn’t particularly awful, but the delivery is just bad. There was also a big boss lady by the name of Snakehead (Eugenia Yuan) who of which the story could have done without as she brought nothing to the plot nor did she influence any of the character’s motivations or major lack thereof. Revenge of the Green Dragons even tries to infuse a love story within to spark some kind of stakes for Sonny, but the relationship is horribly developed.
At a cool 94 minutes, this film is exhausting and feels overly long. The directors, Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) and Andrew Loo, do little to thematically tie all of the various plot threads together into a cohesive narrative. But at least there’s some gritty, ultra violence that adds some color. But what works the least is its unexpected twist that is completely unearned. There is hardly anything that hints toward this revelation to make you go “aha,” and instead it makes you ask “why?” It doesn’t make sense and completely undermines the climax of the story.
To add for an even lesser experience, Revenge of the Green Dragons feels cheap. Its insufferable editing and nauseous shaky cam only makes the movie uglier than the crimes it depicts on screen. All of the sets are congested and tight, with every location appearing no different from the next. And the strained guitar score felt too campy to mirror any classic ’80s music from greater crime thrillers to take it seriously.
What could have been an entertaining and different viewpoint of the New York gang scene of the ’80s, Revenge of the Green Dragon turns out to be just another throwaway gangster film with nothing to say.
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Revenge of the Green Dragons was directed by Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo with a run time of 94 minutes. The film has been rated R for strong violence including a sexual assault, pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content.