The problem with the new Revenge of the Green Dragons is that co-director Andrew Lau and executive producer Martin Scorsese are already joined at the hip over a previous story, which Lau made as Infernal Affairs before Scorsese re-made it as The Departed. Although Revenge of the Green Dragons is an entirely different type of story than those two films, it will inevitably be compared to them, as well as every other classic that the two men have made, and it suffers badly from the comparison.
Of all the films in Lau’s and Scorsese’s catalogs, this most closely resembles Goodfellas, right down to the omnipresent voiceover narration by the lead character. Sonny (Justin Chon of the Twilight series) immigrates to America as a small child, and with his best friend Steven (Kevin Wu), he becomes mixed up with local gang the Green Dragons before he even enters puberty. As the two boys age, difficult lessons are learned, betrayals occur, you know the drill.
Now, “you know the drill” is not necessarily a pejorative statement. Even in the case of Goodfellas, there was a gangster-film drill involved, dating back through The Godfather to the mob pictures of the 1940s, and Scorsese was playing off of the audience’s knowledge of that drill. There’s something to be said for Lau and Loo using this film to tell the audience, “the inner-city Chinese gangs in 1990 New York were as tough as any other gangs in any other movies, but you never knew it because no one ever made a movie about them before.”
The problem is that, for a film which clearly wants to tell that story as an epic, Revenge of the Green Dragons is spare to a depressing degree. At almost an hour shorter than Goodfellas, this film maintains a breakneck pace that leaves no room for anything other than plot development in every scene. Sonny’s romantic relationship particularly suffers as a result; he goes from “I just know this girl because we run in the same circles” to “we’re star-crossed lovers” so quickly that it seems like a reel is missing.
It’s not only a plot problem, either, because the screenplay by Loo and Michael Di Jiacomo is clearly committed to Big Issues, but can only mount a superficial examination of them. Chief among these is race, as the Green Dragons are able to maintain their empire in the shadow of the NYPD’s indifference toward the Chinese neighborhood. There is certainly drama to be found in the tragedy of lazy policing – The Wire played magnificently in that arena throughout its run – but Lau and Loo don’t have that kind of time. Instead they settle into a predictably lame pattern of “horrific crime scene / racist quip by a clueless white cop / slow burn by the force’s lone Chinese cop.”
In fact, given the film’s serious pacing problems, it’s worth asking why law enforcement officers receive any time at all. After all, a 94-minute picture called Revenge of the Green Dragons shouldn’t have much use for characters who are not Green Dragons. As an FBI agent possessed of a Glenn Beck-ian panic about illegal immigration, Ray Liotta goes badly to waste; his dramatic moments are flat and his pursuit of justice feels far from dogged. It’s impossible to watch his scenes and not wonder, “Why not do what Goodfellas did? The police in that movie barely mattered! The gangsters are the ones we care about!”
The one area where this film distinguishes itself from its forebears is cinematography. Shot entirely on digital cameras, most of them handheld, Lau and Loo give the film a gritty look which is nothing like either Lau’s Hong Kong work or Scorsese’s pictures. Even then, however, the film is not going to make everyone happy, because its grainy appearance is not well-suited to the big screen. The film’s best shots are deeply cinematic, but its worst moments wouldn’t even qualify for low-rent cable TV.
It’s simply impossible to watch Revenge of the Green Dragons without being reminded of a thing that Goodfellas or Infernal Affairs did much better. Chon, for instance, is a fine actor in front of the camera, but his work in the voiceover narration is painfully dull, bringing none of the electricity that Liotta’s voice brought to Goodfellas. And while Lau displayed a masterful control of tension when creating the set pieces in Infernal Affairs, in this film we’re not fearing for Sonny’s life even in scenes where another character tells him that his life is in danger. It’s admirable that Lau and Scorsese wanted to collaborate on a film as ambitious in scope as this one, but ambition is not always enough.