But I didn’t Watch the First Green Dragons Movie
I’m not going to lie: I’m a sucker for certain types of movies. Crime movies are one of those things, and late 1980’s Hong Kong action movies are another. When you seemingly mix those two together, as the trailer for Revenge of the Green Dragons does, you’ve sold me. Add to the mix the names Martin Scorsese as producer and Andrew Lau as co-director (with Andrew Loo who co-wrote the film with Michael Di Jiacamo) and it’s just icing on the cake.
The problem with Revenge of the Green Dragons though, is that it’s a good action/crime movie with a trailer that makes it seem a lot better than it is. That is the job of trailers after all, to make people want to watch the movie, but in a best case scenario the movie is at least as good as the trailer. In the case of Revenge of the Green Dragons however, the movie never quite reaches the peaks that the trailer implies.
Revenge of the Green Dragons is set in the time period of 1983-1992. We know this because we are told, but the immersive effect of a movie like American Hustle or Boogie Nights is nowhere to be found in this one. I am assuming that is due to budgetary issues, but the film never feels like a period piece. This was the first of the films flaws to me and it is a hard one to overcome.
The film follows the story of Sonny (Justin Chon/adult, Alex Fox/child) after he is illegally smuggled into the U.S. through New York City. His mother has died on the trip so the Snakehead Mama (Eugenia Yuan), who controls the human trafficking operation, orders Mrs. Wan (Linda Wang) to take Sonny in as her own with her family in Flushing, Queens. Wan has a son named Steven (Kevin Wu/adult, Michael Gregory Fung/child) who becomes Sonny’s best friend. The pair eventually gets taken in by the local gang, the Green Dragons, and eventually become full-fledged gang members.
The Green Dragons are primarily teenagers but are led by a man named Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr.) who puts them up in flop houses and pays for their day to day expenses. Paul, who appears to be in his late 20’s/early 30’s, is presented in the film as a very restrained and conniving individual who gets the Green Dragons to do his dirty work, while putting off a very nice and sincere face to them, almost like a father figure. Paul is deeply involved in the human trafficking operation but seems to be more interested in getting a heroin business off the ground. Towards the end of the movie he is trying to form an alliance with several of the other Asian gangs in Flushing to distribute the drug that he is getting through a connection in Hong Kong.
The main crux of the movie is that Sonny and Steven both start out as good kids but are corrupted by their environment. The Green Dragons are a way for the boys to feel powerful, but even a gang is eventually powerless to the people that are in charge, such as Paul and the Snakehead Mama. Sonny begins to realize this after falling for local girl Tina (Shuya Chang), talking to a New York detective named Boyer (Billy Magnussen), and after the Green Dragons kill one of their own. The finale has Sonny severing his ties with the gang but finding out that some ties are never fully understood until the end.
Oh yeah, Ray Liotta plays a an F.B.I. agent in it named Michael Bloom. He’s fine in it, but only has about ten minutes worth of screen time. You kind of get the idea that his character was written in just so they could have an American star to put on the poster and in the trailers. But Liotta is always interesting and that is no different here.
I am not mad that I watched Revenge of the Green Dragons. It has good performances all around (particularly Shum Jr.) and if you have never seen a movie like it before you might really like it. The problem with me is that I have seen a hundred movies that hit all of the same notes better. Crime movies are kind of like a blues song; a blues scale can only be played so many ways so it’s not what you’re playing, it’s how you play it. Crime movies always follow similar plot lines so it’s not what happens, but how you tell it. In the case of Revenge of The Green Dragons, Means Streets told it better, A Better Tomorrow told it better, and Lau’s own Infernal Affairs told it better.
The film is based on an article written by Frederic Dannen that appeared in The New Yorker in 1992, so the film is at least “based on true events.” Although I haven’t finished reading the article (hey, it’s long alright), I have already determined that the film makers probably had to make up some characters and composite some others to form a coherent plot. The article is true crime reporting at its best, which of course means reporting a lot of things that may or may not make sense or tie together. This can certainly be problematic for filmmakers so I applaud Loo and Di Jiacomo for at least making a narrative that makes sense out of something that could have easily been a mess.
At the end of the day I do recommend Revenge of the Green Dragons. Even though it falters at times, when it succeeds it does it with flash. The human trafficking element of the story is very interesting and a part of New York’s history that gets glossed over a lot of times. Great crime movies are hard to come by and Revenge of the Green Dragons falls a little short of being that, but it is good, and that’s more than I can say for most.
Until next time…