Bloody, brutal and melodramatic, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” is a straight-up gang war thriller whose release is “presented” by Martin Scorsese. The master of Italian-American mob movies saw much to like, and much that is familiar in this story of the rise of Chinese gangs in 1980s Flushing, New York.
“Inspired by a true story” (stay through the credits), “Dragons” follows a child smuggled into America in the early ’80s, enslaved washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant and eventually caught and coerced into joining one of the Asian gangs fighting to control Queens.
Unlike past depictions of this violent underworld of guns, knives and Mahjong parlors, co-directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo tell it totally from an insider’s point of view. The cops and F.B.I.agents (Ray Liotta) are too racist to care much about the flood of Chinese illegals and the drugs and violence the gangs that were smuggling them brought in with them. This is Chinese-on-Chinese violence, gruesome eye-for-an-eye stuff. Their rules for a clean kill? “Never shoot whites” is one of them.
Sonny avoids the gangs for a while. But when his “brother” Steven, the kid being raised in the same Chinese restaurant slave ring where he works, is kidnapped and tortured into joining, Sonny comes along. Can’t be any worse than the beatings that make up his dead-end world of dish washing.
Of course it can.
By 1989, Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu) are the Chinese equivalent of “made men,” mobsters in good standing with the clean-cut leader of the Green Dragons, Paul (Harry Shum Jr.). The Tienanmen Square protests on TV mean nothing to them. Their simmering war with the White Tigers gang does.
Sonny falls for the willowy daughter (Shuya Chang) of a Hong Kong singer smuggled over and supported by the Green Dragons. But whatever soul Sonny has long ago vanished from Steven, who has become a cold-eyed killer.
Leonard Wu makes a vivid impression as the gang’s brutish second in command, Eugenia Yuan is a quietly furious Snakehead Mama, an inscrutable cliche of Chinese gang movies since the silent era.
“Behind every fortune is a crime,” she purrs, every line a fortune cookie quip.
Scorsese must have appreciated the myriad mob movie cliches that make up “Revenge.” The violence is vivid and in your face. There’s a continuum to the American immigrant experience, which Scorsese’s films depict and Ray Liotta, playing an F.B.I. agent spells out for his slow-witted boss. Irish, Jews and Italians went through their mobster eras. Now, it is the turn of the Chinese. That was corny and dated back when Mickey Rourke was saying it in the middle of these wars in “Year of the Dragon” (1985).
Colorful early scenes capture the terror of children hunted by gangsters, the awful beatings the kids endure before they’re initiated. Later scenes descend into the trite, gory and predictable conventions of such movies — betrayal, the deaths of those close to the hero, laughably arch speeches about this war.
“There’s a storm coming, detective. And I don’t know any umbrella that’s gonna keep this city dry!”
This would work better if you thought the writers and directors were in on the joke.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence including a sexual assault, pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content
Cast: Justin Chon, Kevin Wu,Shuya Chang, Ray Liotta, Harry Shum Jr.,Eugenia Yuan, Jin Auyeung
Credits: Directed by Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, screenplay by Michael Di Jiacomo, Andrew Loo. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:34