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You can’t slay these ‘Green Dragons’

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

The crime drama, “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” carries the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese. The acclaimed director served as the film’s Executive Producer.

Scorsese has long evidenced a keen interest in the sociohistorical aspects of criminal enterprise. His “Gangs of New York” was set in the city’s Five Points section during the mid-19th century. The film’s subtext pitted the nativist Bowery Boys against the Dead Rabbits, whose ranks consisted of Irish Catholic immigrants. The film captured the dynamic tension between xenophobia towards and assimilation of recent arrivals.

Fast forward 100 plus years and move from Five Points in Manhattan to Chinatown in Queens Borough. “Revenge of the Green Dragons” contains a permutation of the turf warfare that took place in “Gangs of New York” and numerous other films of the genre. Here, we are immersed in the internecine battle, which erupted in Gotham circa 1989, between the Green Dragons and the White Tigers, another  Asian-American youth gang.

The screenplay fictionalizes the 1992 article by Frederick Dannen in “New Yorker.” The account detailed the complex matrix of criminal activities, masterminded by Chinese immigrants.

A screen capture form the trailer to "Revenge of the Green Dragons" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2eKchU1GZo

A screen capture form the trailer to “Revenge of the Green Dragons” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2eKchU1GZo

The counter-fatalistic ethos of the film is captured by the dialogue, which contends that a fisherman in China will always be a fisherman in China. However, America is the land of opportunity. Supposedly, anyone can reinvent themselves and become anything. Using footage of Ronald Reagan expounding on the American Dream, the film creates a strong sense of time and place. As “Revenge of the Green Dragons” makes clear, despite the high-minded rhetoric that is often expressed, most Americans are consumed with anti-immigrant fervor.

In an early scene, we witness a hoard of illegal immigrants from China as they scurry from the bowels of a container ship, where they have been hidden.  As young children, Sonny (Justin Chon, Eric in the “Twilight” series) and Steven (Kevin Wu) were among those smuggled to America in this manner.

They are forcibly recruited into the Green Dragons gang, which is run by Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr. from “Glee”). Wong’s polished, soft spoken manner belies his vicious streak. Under his ambitious leadership, the gang has graduated from petty street crime to human trafficking and smuggling heroin into the United States. These new enterprises have proven extremely lucrative.

Where is law enforcement? As long as no Caucasians become victims of gangland violence, they are content to ignore the massive unlawful activity. When F.B.I. agent, Michael Bloom (Ray Liotta), approaches a supervisor about the burgeoning criminal empire, the latter expresses complete indifference. Using Liotta as a law enforcement officer is a gem of ironic casting. The actor’s breakthrough role was as Mafia capo, Henry Hill, in Scorsese’s “Good Fellas.”

In their debut in an English language film, Hong Kong co-directors, Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, do a masterful job. Together, they create a dramatically compelling, well-paced film. Previously, Lau had helmed and starred in “Infernal Affairs,” about an undercover cop, who infiltrated the triads. The basic storyline was adapted by Scorsese as “The Departed,” with Leonardo DiCaprio assuming Lau’s role in the Oscar-winning film.

A screen capture form the trailer to "Revenge of the Green Dragons" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2eKchU1GZo

A screen capture form the trailer to “Revenge of the Green Dragons” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2eKchU1GZo

The film contains engaging performances from an extensive ensemble cast of capable Asian actors. As Snakehead Mama, the flinty pragmatist in charge of the Green Dragons’ human trafficking operations, Eugenia Yuan (“Charlotte Sometimes”) exudes menace. Leonard Wu convincingly plays Chen Chung, a wild-eyed, bloodthirsty enforcer for the Green Dragons, who derives sadistic glee from viciously torturing his enemies.

Cinematographer Martin Ahlgren, Production Designer Wing Lee, Editor Elisabeth Vastola, and Music Director Mark Kilian collectively provide a strong technical package. A rendition of the title song by Devon Diep has an impressive impact.

A caveat is in order. “Revenge of the Green Dragons” is a hyperviolent affair. The film is replete with graphic depictions of gruesome initiation rituals, fingers being chopped off, gang rapes, brutal beatings, and bloody shoot outs. In stark contrast to typical Hollywood fare, where the violence is often sanitized, here it embodies intense viscerality.

Imaginatively conceptualized and deliciously-executed, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” is a mash up of tropes from Hollywood and Hong Kong gangster movies.  The film effectively depicts Chinese immigrants as the latest arrivals to use organized crime in pursuit of the vaunted American Dream.

“Revenge of the Green Dragons” *** 1/2 R (for strong violence, language, drug use and sexual content) 94 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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