Thursday, October 23, 2014

Revenge of the Green Dragons: Infernal Flushing

The 1980s were glory days for Queens, especially 1986, unless you were working in virtual slavery to pay off the human trafficker who brought you into the borough illegally. Sonny and his adopted brother Steven will be two of the ostensibly lucky ones who are recruited by the Green Dragon street gang, but their life expectancy will be limited. Survival of the fittest comes with a code of silence in Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo’s Revenge of the Green Dragons (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Nobody has to tell Sonny life is not fair. When his mother died during the harsh passage over, the traffickers forced Steven’s mother to take him in. They never warmed to each other, but the boys became fast friends and sworn brothers. For years, they were relentlessly bullied, until a Green Dragon leader intercedes. Soon they are rising through the ranks, especially the even-keeled Sonny.

There are many Asian gangs in 1980s Queens, but the Green Dragons are the most sophisticated and badassedest. Paul Wong, their benefactor, represents the Dragons in the board room, but in the backroom, they are led by Snakehead (who is presented like she is Fu Manchu’s daughter). Wong has engineered a grand scheme that will give them a stranglehold on the Queens Heroin trade, but Steven jeopardizes the established order when he kills a white guy by mistake.

Sadly, Andrew Lau does not replicate the magic of Infernal Affairs in Queens. There is a fair amount of violence, but the film is caught betwixt and between an issue-driven immigration morality tale and a gangster thriller. Frankly, it is spectacularly tone-deaf, constantly interrupting the action with loaded video snippets of Presidents Reagan and Bush I. It is not just heavy-handed. It also confuses the narrative thread by cutting away to a Reagan speech on immigration during the early 1990s.

The FBI agent Michael Bloom is another case in point. Presumably, he represents the racist Federal government, constantly issuing dire warnings about the Asian mobs, but since he is played by Ray Liotta with his usual energy and attitude, he comes to be an audience favorite, since he at least relieves the boredom. Indeed, even though the film wears its immigration heart on its sleeve, it is hard to envision many viewers walking out of a screening convinced we need a “pathway to citizenship” after watching the Green Dragons racketeering, raping, and murdering with abandon.

It is a shame Green Dragons wastes a likable lead like Justin Chon. Some will know him from the Twilight franchise, but AAIFF patrons will recognize him from festival fare like Innocent Blood and the excellent short Jin. He develops some finely wrought chemistry with Shuya Chang’s Tina, the daughter of a former HK celebrity now beholden to Wong’s patronage. Unfortunately, the film cuts them off just as they are getting started. It also completely wastes Eugenia Yuan (Cheng Pei-pei’s daughter) as Snakehead.

Admittedly, Lau and Loo turn a heck of a twist down the stretch, but it feels like it takes much longer than the film’s ninety-some minutes to get there. Despite some nice performances, it is an awkward mishmash that is too heavy on message and too light on fun. Disappointingly not recommended, The Revenge of the Green Dragons opens tomorrow (10/24) in New York at the Village East.