(A24 Films)

(A24 Films)

Directed by Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo
Written by Michael Di Jiacomo, Andrew Loo, based on an article by Frederic Dannen
Hong Kong/USA. 94 min. Rated R
With Ray Liotta, Justin Chon, Kevin Wu, Harry Shum Jr., and Leonard Hu

When we look back at classic movies, we mostly think of great moments. When Mr. White walks out to his car to get gasoline in the “Stuck in the Middle With You” scene from Reservoir Dogs, reentering the torture warehouse with the music still playing; when Michael Corleone bows his head at the sound of the single gunshot signaling his feckless brother’s death. You get the idea.

Revenge of the Green Dragons is not a classic film on par with those movies, nor does it have any moments that will be reverently discussed decades from now. But it has more moments approaching pure cinema than most films nowadays, which alone makes it worth seeing.

The film, from director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, the source material for The Departed) and Andrew Loo, tells the story of two best friends, Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu). The pair go from timid young boys to key players in the most ruthless Chinese gang in 1980s Queens: the Green Dragons. Queens at that time was experiencing a huge influx of Chinese immigration, and, lacking wider social acceptance or legitimate opportunities, many of the youth turned to lives of crime.

We’ve seen plenty of gangster and mafia depictions in TV and movies, but we haven’t quite seen Chinese gangs portrayed with this level of care before. Like the best gangster movies, Revenge shows the intense attractiveness of criminal life, and, perhaps more than most, the truly psychotic depravity at the core of it.

We understand why Sonny and Steven make the Green Dragons their adoptive family, even though their first encounters with the gang lead to enforced coprophagia and very nearly castration. We still want them to get all the money and women they can while taking down as many rival gangsters as they can. But we also root for them to get out because the level of insanity the Green Dragons operate at is unsustainable.

We get acquainted with some rival gangs, particularly the White Tigers, and many of them seem comprised of older, tougher, more muscular guys. But the Green Dragons have two superpowers—an unparalleled love for causing as much mayhem as possible and the guidance of Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr.), a cold-blooded, Gus Fring-style mastermind. Paul’s lieutenant, Chen Chung (Leonard Hu), is one of the more maniacally threatening screen presences in a while. Steven learns a lot of bad things from Chung, and eventually becomes his favorite dragon. That is not a good distinction to have. Chung is wilder than any Italian movie/TV gangster that readily comes to mind.

Some reviewers have called this an attempt to be a Chinese GoodFellas, which is fair, and also probably motivated by Martin Scorsese’s credit as executive producer and Ray Liotta’s role as the FBI agent who brings the Dragons down. GoodFellas focused on the lives of psychotic murderers as they enjoyed food, jokes, and each other’s company, while also murdering people on the side. Their downfalls were included, but you didn’t feel like everything was rushing you toward that conclusion. Revenge feels perhaps a bit too beholden to showing the complete crumbling of the empire, and so rushes through while its best moments pass too quickly.

So much obvious passion went into the more unhinged, frenetic stuff, and the style in those scenes is exhilaratingly fresh and real. The problem is that as the film goes on, more scenes focus on moving the story toward its inevitable conclusion, following the real-life events all the way through, but they have little of the earlier inspired energy. The directors’ style works against them, as they establish a unique tone and style so quickly and effortlessly, pulling you into their world so completely, that your attention wanders whenever the pace goes a little slack, as it often does in telling the full story.

Still, there is plenty of material here that comes awfully close to what a 1980s-era GoodFellas set in a Chinese enclave of New York City would look like. And that is more than enough reason to check it out.