Chinese director Wai-keung Lau (also known as Andrew Lau) gained a reputation in the U.S. when his 2002 thriller Infernal Affairs was transformed into The Departed, a Boston-set, star-studded thriller by Martin Scorsese, modern cinema's king of gangster movies. Now these two reteam--as director and executive producer respectively---for Revenge of The Green Dragons, a crime-drama embedded in the same mean streets where Scorsese's Italian-Americans raised hell. But this time the focus is on Chinese immigrants looking to do whatever it takes to snare their American Dream.
Co-directed by Wai-keung Lau and Andrew Loo, Revenge of The Green Dragons begins in Flushing, Queens in the 1980s. There, two young boys are made brothers by fate--well, by a powerful human trafficker known as Snakehead (Eugenia Yuan). Sonny (Justin Chon) has no family, and so is given to the care of Steven's (Kevin Wu) reluctant mother. In this setup, we're promised a story of how two boys who grow to be so close can be ripped apart by the conflicts within gang culture. Unfortunately, the film never fully pays off on this promise. Instead, Sonny's story--which loops in a manipulative mentor (Harry Shum Jr.), a disrespected detective (Jin Auyeung), and a doe-eyed love interest (Shuya Chang)--becomes the film's main focus. Stephen, with his heartbroken mother, desire to be seen as tough, and short-fuse, is pushed to the fringes of this cluttered drama. It's a shame, because the most interesting relationship in Revenge of The Green Dragons is the one that's taken for granted.
The script by Michael Di Jiacomo and Andrew Loo starts with promise, but soon becomes predictable, filled with clichés that mount as it draws to its frustratingly familiar conclusion. Though Stephen desperately wants to thrive in the gang, it's cool-headed Sonny who is trusted and admired. Stephen's impetuousness gets him into trouble as the gang gets deeper into drug deals and other crimes that will force the NYPD to actually acknowledge this ignored immigrant enclave. Violence intensifies along with betrayals. But we've seen it all before. This time it's just with Chinese gangsters.
Loo and Lau strive for Scorsese-level street cred. Their gangsters spit curse words and codes of conduct with equal earnestness and machismo. But the direction of the film fails to sell it. "We the baddest motherfuckers in Queens!" screams a Green Dragons leader as the gang sprays bullets at the camera in slow motion. It feels like something out of the low-budget gang movies out of the late 1970s/early 1980s. In fact, Revenge of The Green Dragons chases that homage hard, not only in its setting but with an abundance of slo-mo, freeze frames on death scenes, and weeping electric guitars in its scores. Even the added heft that Ray Liotta brings with a small role as a sneering cop can't fully electrify this outing.
There are some solid performances within. Liotta has little to do, but does well with it. He seethes with rage over a growing crime problem he can't get his superiors to ignore. And as he grapples to understand the complexities of this foreign culture that's fucking up Queens, I briefly wished it was his story we were following. Likewise, Yuan's brief appearances as the smiling Snakehead sizzle. Shum, best known for his singing and dancing on Glee, is surprisingly biting and believable as a duplicitous gangster who wears a business suit and a respectable veneer for his criminal activities.
Again, any of these would have been intriguing characters to follow. But instead, they are all pushes and pulls on Sonny's story. Sadly, Chon's performance is too bland to keep this narrative engaging. It's not all his fault. While he doesn't possess the alluring presence of Liotta, Yuan or Shum, he's done no favors by the script that shortchanges his relationship with his best friend (and underwhelming Wu) and his girlfriend, who is given little character definition beyond loving her dad and romantic gestures. But despite its promise and pedigree, all this makes for an undercooked crime-drama that feels like a pale imitation of the movies that clearly inspired it.