The only thing novel about the generic Hong Kong gangster film
"Revenge of the Green Dragons" is its subject: Chinese immigrants
struggling to maintain their agency and identities in New York City in
the mid-to-late '80s. Everything else about the film is lifted from
other true crime stories, especially Martin Scorsese's seminal dramas.
This is partly intentional, as we see in bookend images that position
the film as a pseudo-universal, one-immigrant-story-fits-all story: angry waves lap at a boat filled with illegal immigrants. But the boat's human cargo is tellingly offscreen, ostensibly in order to lend these scenes a mythic quality. But by widening the scope of their based-on-a-true story, the makers of "Revenge of the Green Dragon" make their subjects look like the products of unimaginative cultural assimilation.
of the Green Dragons" is the story of Sonny and Steven (Justin Chon and
Kevin Wu), two young men who try and fail to discover themselves by
joining a gang. That's not a spoiler: Sonny ostentatiously broadcasts
his inevitable failure in a world-weary
introduction: "This is a story about coming to America. Only it's not
that story, the one where everyone lives happily ever after." This
warning might be exciting if "Revenge of the Green Dragons" didn't
immediately proceed to deliver the exact story Sonny claims to be responding to, and not buying into.
to Flushing, Queens in 1983, a time when Chinese immigrants dominated
the neighborhood, and, according to Sonny, left bewildered Jewish and
Greek residents wondering at the influx of MSG-slinging restaurants.
These restaurants are either protected, or run by gangs like the Green
Dragons, thugs that terrorize women, and pre-pubescent kids like Sonny
and Steven. The Dragons' presence is a sad fact of life. They're
boisterous, trigger-happy stereotypes, the kind of preening tough guys
that taunt Chinese-American cops by accusing them of cronyism and collusion. These guys claim to be different than the five
other major gangs in Queens, but that's apparently wishful thinking.
even after they're beaten up and mercilessly hazed by the Green
Dragons, Sonny and Steven inexplicably still want to be one of them, one
of them. They believe Chen I. Chung (Leonard Wu) when he puffs out his
chest and snarls to himself "I'm Green Dragon: I know who I am." But you
never really find out what that means since "Revenge of the Green
Dragons" is a convoluted connect-the-dots gangster narrative with no
pretensions or vested interest in its characters' motives. All we is
know is Sonny and Steven want to pass as big men, and inevitably realize
what anyone that's seen "Mean Streets" or "Goodfellas" already knows:
there's no hope for advancement in a world where dog routinely bites
dog.The immigrant experience in "Revenge of the
Green Dragons" is a dim projection that's most intriguing when powerless
characters like Sonny bluntly talk about how disenfranchised
disenchanted they are. The film eventually collapses into cliches, but
it does start off strong, suggesting that there's a difference between
line-toeing immigrants and stubborn "Chinamen" who refuse to get with
the program. In one fleetingly memorable scene, Steven and Sonny share a
hot dog because "This is America. You eat what they eat." Sonny, the
film's narrator and the closest thing it has to a hero, also dryly jokes
that the Chinese population in Flushing boomed so fast in the '80s that
the 7 train became known as "the Orient Express."
these initial tantalizing hints of a unique, and heretofore unheralded
New York drama, "Revenge of the Green Dragons" settles into comforting
cliches. There's a doomed romance with Tina (Shuya Chang), who's too
good for boyfriend Sonny, but not good enough to leave him. And there's
tension between sympathetic white hat cop Detective Tang (Jin Auyeung),
and, if you'll pardon the pun, bull-in-a-China-shop FBI agent Michael
Bloom (Ray Liotta, half-asleep). There's also Sonny and Steven's
fraternal rivalry, though that often feels like an afterthought in a
film that distractedly shifts from one sub-plot to the next.
All of these tiresome elements are lumped into "Revenge of the Green Dragons"' melting pot of miserablist pulp, and none of them come out
well: the action scenes are covered, not directed; there's no chemistry
between any of the lead actors; and the film's prefabricated
trust-nobody attitude isn't convincing, especially not when Sonny conspires with viewers through voiceover narration, and outlines the Green Dragons' cardinal rules, like "Never
shoot whites," and "Always shoot guy in head." That's supposed to be
tall talk from a kid who clearly doesn't know better, but it just sounds
like bad jive. There's a good story somewhere in "Revenge of the Green
Dragons," but it's not the one Lau and his colleagues chose to retell.