Asian-American actors get so few opportunities to play significant roles that films placing them front and center seem worth supporting on general principle. All the same, it’s a bummer that Revenge Of The Green Dragons lacks the ingenuity and intensity of Infernal Affairs, the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Martin Scorsese turned into his Oscar-winning triumph The Departed. By way of thanks, Scorsese serves as an executive producer on Green Dragons, which was co-directed by Infernal Affairs co-director Andrew Lau (working with a different collaborator this time), and he may well have played a role in securing Ray Liotta for one of the key American parts. True reciprocation, though, would have seen Lau remake one of Scorsese’s films, and an Asian-American version of Mean Streets set in ’80s Chinatown (which is right next to Little Italy!) would surely have been far more interesting than this generic, nondescript gangster saga.
Given how many standard-issue genre beats Green Dragons hits, it’s surprising to learn that it’s based on actual events—the primary source material is a lengthy New Yorker article written by Fredric Dannen in 1992, not long after the shit went down. As fictionalized, the story focuses on Sonny (Justin Chon, familiar to many as Eric from the Twilight films) and Steven (Kevin Wu), who were smuggled to America as kids and wound up joining the Green Dragons, one of several savage Asian-American gangs operating in Queens during the ’80s. Their relationship actually does have a bit of a Mean Streets vibe, with Sonny as the sensible peacekeeper à la Harvey Keitel and Steven as the Robert De Niro-esque volatile hothead; both are in thrall to Dragons leader Paul Wong (Glee’s Harry Shum Jr.), who’s graduating from human trafficking and petty larceny to bringing heroin into the country hidden in Chinese pastries. Inevitably, loyalties prove tenuous and allegiances shatter. When characters start openly discussing the “American dream,” it’s sufferin’ time.
Most of the pleasure in Green Dragons comes simply from the opportunity to watch some underused actors dig into meatier parts than they’re usually offered. Shum plays the gang boss as one of those deadly, soft-spoken types who virtually never commits an act of violence—his steely demeanor is threat enough. Eugenia Yuan (Charlotte Sometimes), as the ruthless pragmatist in charge of the trafficking operation, gets the chance to stare down Liotta (playing a cop), and more than holds her own. Performances can’t exist in a vacuum, however, and the story here, despite being fact-based, plays like a tepid rehash of almost every gangster flick ever made, right down to the doomed romance and the internecine back-stabbing. Lau and his co-director, Andrew Loo, rely on regular infusions of sadism (fingers cut off, gang rapes) to keep pulses pounding, devoting little energy to the film’s overall pace and rhythm. By the time Revenge Of The Green Dragons arrives at its cynical final twist, it’s largely squandered the goodwill that its cast inspired.