by Lee Purvey
Executive producer Martin Scorsese’s name is all over the promotion for Revenge of the Green Dragons and, while his actual participation in the '80s era New York crime drama is assuredly exaggerated, his is the most easily identifiable influence. The story of two friends’ journey into the criminal underworld of Chinese-American Queens, Revenge reads something like a 20th century Gangs of New York told in the style of Goodfellas, without any of the brilliance of the latter movie and all the thematic incoherence and overwrought drama of the former.
Theatres at Mall of America
Directors: Lau Wai-keung, Andrew Loo
Producers: Allen Bain, Stuart Ford, Ara Katz, Jesse Scolaro
Writers: Michael Di Jiacomo, Andrew Loo
Cinematographer: Martin Ahlgren
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
Music: Mark Kilian
Cast: Justin Chon, Kevin Wu, Harry Shum Jr., Ray Liotta, Jin Auyeung, Shuya Chang, Carl Li, Leonard Wu, Eugenia Yuan, Celia Au, Jon Kit Lee, Geoff Pierson
Countries: Hong Kong/USA
Premiere: September 10, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 31, 2014
US Distributor: A24
Like Goodfellas, Revenge introduces us to our protagonist Sonny (Alex Fox) as a preteen, quite literally fresh off the boat from China and recently orphaned, as his mother died on the voyage over. At the orders of Snakehead Mama (Eugenia Yuan), the head of the illegal immigration scheme that provides the loose narrative framework for most of the subsequent criminal dealings, Sonny is placed in the care of a woman with a son, Steven (Michael Gregory Fung), about the same age, and the two boys soon become inseparable.
Working along with Steven’s mother (Linda Wang) in the kitchen of a restaurant in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, the boys spend their time evading the tormentations of the Green Dragons, a ruthless local gang on the hunt for new recruits. Soon, however—and with as little hubbub as possible as to the psychological and emotional nuances of their decision—the two boys are seduced by the promise of money, respect, and dragon-emblazoned letterman jackets offered by enlistment in the crew.
“No one gives a shit about us. We nobodys. But if you Green Dragon, at least you somebody,” is Steven’s subtle, compelling argument.
Fast-forward six years and Sonny and Steven have grown into young men and prominent Green Dragons, now played by Justin Chon (best known for a minor role in the Twilight series and hilariously dissimilar to Fox in appearance) and Kevin Wu, respectively. From here, Revenge finds itself walking a fine line, on one hand portraying the brutality of the Dragons in unflinching detail, while on the other still vying for the audience’s sympathy, at least in Sonny’s case (this mostly takes the form of ostensibly humanizing shots of Chon moodily smoking cigarettes in front of the Manhattan skyline).
Steven is the loose cannon, a tormented soul driven to brutality by (rather paradoxically it would seem) the guilt and pain he feels over his own brutality. Despite his friend’s increasingly erratic behavior, Sonny—now a favorite of Green Dragons boss Paul Wong (a charismatic Harry Shum Jr. in one of the film’s few standout performances)—remains fiercely loyal to Steven, a devotion that becomes increasingly tenuous along with his friend’s position in the gang.
Thrown in are a fortune-telling love interest (Shuya Chang), an ambitious young police officer out for the Green Dragons’ blood (Jin Auyeung), and an FBI agent played by Ray Liotta, seemingly only present to build some sense of dramatic anticipation of the inevitable big bust, popping up every 15 minutes or so to make steely eyed threats of federal ass-kicking to anyone within earshot.
Revenge clearly crams a lot into 94 minutes, and this isn’t exactly a problem. Lau and Loo keep things moving and, while the result can be pretty incoherent—subplots dropping in and out of the narrative like house guests at a bad party—it makes for a fairly watchable film.
The thematic string tying all of these pieces together is a half-baked thesis amounting to something like the following: contrary to popular myths of the American Dream, upward mobility is a long and painful process for many American immigrants. Choosing between the slave-like conditions working in a Flushing restaurant and the glorified death wish that is membership in the Green Dragons, young men like Sonny and Steven are not exactly presented with the most attractive options. A reasonable assertion, sure, and a compelling enough theme for a movie. Unfortunately, cobbled onto such an amateurish production, the idea goes nowhere.
Loo and co-writer Michael Di Jiacomo’s script is the easiest target here, filled with clunky gangster talk and banal crime drama profundities.
“There’s a storm coming, detective,” Sonny tells Auyeung’s character in a typical line. “And I don’t know of any umbrella that’s going to keep the city dry.”
With dialogue like this, it’s hard to blame Chon, Wu, and Liotta for their weak performances.
But the script isn’t the only thing wrong with Revenge. The Scorsese comparison has already been made, but the cheesily derivative nature of Lau and Loo’s film simply can’t be overstated. We’ve got Sonny’s truism-spouting voiceover (aping Henry Hill’s in Goodfellas, or is it Frank Costello’s in The Departed?), stylish montages about selling drugs, getting caught selling drugs, and getting caught selling drugs again, and plenty of ultra slow-mo sequences of people getting shot and stabbed to death in between—all soundtracked by Mark Kilian’s unabashedly genre score, its wailing electric guitar straight out of Con Air.
Clearly, this film knows what it wants to be, hitting all of the right entries in the big book of gangster film cliches. But as entertaining and campy as these elements might be (Revenge, excluding certain early scenes of truly unnecessary brutality, is actually a lot of fun to watch), it hardly makes for compelling cinema and fails to do justice to its genuinely interesting and heretofore largely underserved subject matter.