Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Revenge of the Green Dragons has been publicly endorsed by Martin Scorsese and described as a film in the vein of Mean Streets. Oh, how pretentious that makes it seem. While Green Dragons attempts to look at a particular ethnic group of immigrants in New York attempting to make it in a world of crime, the film fails to socially comment on Chinese Americans and the influx of gangs in Queens during the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, it revels in deplorable acts of violence and avoids subtlety at all costs, preferring to dole out its themes in the first five minutes and letting the rest of the film shock and disgust. It’s not particularly thought-provoking once it gets past its initial set-up, involving immigrants forced into different families as children if they did not arrive with their parents. That’s how the story introduces its protagonist, Sonny (Justin Chon), who interacts with his newfound brother, Steven (Kevin Wu), during his early years before growing into a neighborhood divided by six gangs.
These criminal groups are described in narration with derogatory names associated with all but one: the Green Dragons. They run the city and commit senseless acts of violence to do whatever it takes to make it in New York. Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr., of Glee fame) stands as the face of the Dragons in their pursuit of control of the city. What other motivations they have are hard to decipher, but they will stop at nothing to get what is seemingly theirs. That means that everything must be solved with violence! Directors Wai-keung Lau and Andrew Loo revel in the film’s brutal action sequences, mostly involving numbing assaults or guns shooting multiple times into a person’s body and head. It’s the kind of violence that personally makes me nauseous, especially when considering how repetitive and wholly unnecessary the lingering shots of blood and loss of human life are. I find it particularly unnerving and chilling to see women put in such perilous situations when they only serve the misogynistic views of the central male figures. When the film is full of characters that commit such senseless acts and are defined by their murderous actions, how can we identify with anyone?
Sonny stands as that figure, and the film relies on his believability as a protagonist. He’s brought into this world when Steven is pushed to that moment, but how does that come about? Let’s just say it involves a men’s room interaction that involves a man committing a excruciatingly disgusting act while other men prepare to kill a defenseless man on the ground. Who is he, you ask? The story doesn’t care about him or his importance, only about how repulsive the scene can be. It’s generally senseless filmmaking that prefers stylizing death scenes rather than defining characters or their situations. Revenge of the Green Dragons deserves credit for its initial ambition, particularly since Chinese actors rarely get this amount of screen time. It’s shameful, then, that their roles cannot be insightful or intuitive like classics surrounding Chinese Americans (Chan is Missing comes to mind as a piece of remarkable filmmaking). Genre overwhelms the narrative and American actors like Ray Liotta inhabit the film if only to collect a paycheck. The film is derivative, gruesomely violent, and repetitive.
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)