A movie that only comes to life — and then just barely — in its moments of tooth-pulling, finger-slicing, gut-twisting violence, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” offers a flashy but unrewarding intro to the vicious Chinese-American youth gangs that ran amok in Queens in the 1980s and ’90s. The latest and least in a series of baton passes between Martin Scorsese (credited as an exec producer) and the Hong Kong film industry (represented by co-directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo), this crudely made thriller plays like a stilted Cantonese riff on organized-crime cliches, substituting blood and brutality for novelty or insight. Scorsese’s imprimatur could give the A24 release a commercial boost Stateside, but lackluster critical response will keep crossover biz at a trickle.
There’s no underestimating the influence that Scorsese’s movies have had on the ranks of Asian action cinema, a connection that was cemented when he made “The Departed,” his Oscar-winning, Boston-set remake of “Infernal Affairs,” a superior Hong Kong suspenser co-directed by Lau and Alan Mak. Lau, now joining forces with the younger Loo, has attempted to return the favor with “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” a movie that plays in part like a fast-and-loose homage to Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” That at least explains the brief presence of Ray Liotta as an FBI agent, trying to convince his skeptical superior that New York’s Chinese “immigrant problem” circa 1989 is spawning a major crime wave.
And is it ever. As laid out in Fredric Dannen’s detailed 1992 New Yorker account (the authoritative basis for Loo and Michael Di Jiacomo’s patched-together script), the Green Dragons were a ruthless street gang in Elmhurst, Queens, consisting primarily of first-generation Chinese youths whose awareness of their third-class citizenship bred a particularly menacing form of social rebellion. The Dragons modeled themselves after the Hong Kong triads as well as countless gangster-movie tropes, and their activities are depicted here in swift, frenzied montages: When they’re not covering themselves with tattoos or cavorting with molls and prostitutes, we see them shaking down local businesses for money, smuggling immigrants and even concealing heroin in Chinese moon cakes.
Our guides to this scuzzy world of nonstop crime and erratic punishment are Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu), best friends who are recruited by the Green Dragons at a tragically young age (they’re played as kids by Alex Fox and Michael Gregory Fung, respectively). Their induction rituals are gruesome beyond belief, but the boys are too frightened, and also too aware of their limited options, to put up much of a fight. By 1989 they’re prized lieutenants in an army led by the ferocious, unpredictable Chen I. Chung (Leonard Wu) and the cooler, more calculating Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr.). Another powerful player here is Snake Head (Eugenia Yuan), the boss lady who oversees the Dragons’ human-trafficking empire.
Loo and Lau follow this grim tale along its fatalistic and familiar trajectory, replete with elaborate twists and double-crosses that always seem to complicate rather than deepen the story. A Flushing-based rival gang, the White Tigers, supplies a steady stream of skirmishes and shootouts. Sonny finds himself falling for Tina (Shuya Chang, flat), the fetching young daughter of a lower-ranking Dragon ally whose bumbling missteps will land all of them in hot water. Steven makes an even graver mistake when he accidentally guns down an innocent bystander, breaking one of Chung’s cardinal rules: Never kill a white person, which will surely attract police and media attention in a way that Chinese deaths will not.
Indeed, the Dragons’ cynical awareness of their expendability in the eyes of the law represents easily the film’s most intriguing element, adding a thin sheen of sociological insight to an otherwise routine pileup of carnage. Because of their minority status, the gangs are largely shielded from the prying eyes of the law, but that lack of official respect or even recognition — apart from Liotta’s FBI agent or a dogged Chinese-American cop (Jin Au-yeung) — is its own incitement to further violence, as is America’s hostility to immigrant populations in general. And so the Green Dragons’ legacy becomes the bleakest sort of social advancement imaginable, as they seize fame and fortune in the only way they know how. Unfortunately, this notion is articulated in increasingly ham-fisted terms as the film progresses (“Remember, Sonny, I am the American Dream!” Snake Head declares in one especially awful moment).
For all its desire to filter gangland conventions through the eyes of a different culture, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” is bedeviled by clumsy execution at every turn. Chon and Wu have none of the dramatic stature that would make them compelling antiheroes, and the corruption of their youthful innocence fails to resonate in any meaningful way. The violence is duly horrifying, never more so than in a cringe-inducing sequence involving multiple acts of sexual assault, but at the end of the day, it feels like an awful lot of unfiltered, gun-waving macho bluster, to no discernible moral or aesthetic purpose.
Martin Ahlgren’s mobile lensing and Wing Lee’s production design at least provide potent atmosphere for a story that unfolds against a teeming backdrop of apartments, pool halls and mahjong parlors. But the jarring use of slo-mo and soapy music at key intervals, mostly involving the chemistry-free romance between Sonny and Tina, only make the film even harder to take seriously.