Revenge of the Green Dragons is ostensibly concerned with the Chinese illegal-immigrant experience in America in the 1980s, which would appear to be similar to other illegal-immigrant experiences in that it’s characterized by slave labor and hypocritical handwringing on the part of law enforcers and politicians who may or may not benefit from said labor. Lest we miss the point, footage of former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush addressing various immigration controversies, in broad, superficially reassuringly “political” terms, is bluntly, amusingly visible in shots that ironically highlight the contrastingly hellish drudgery of New York City’s Chinese ghettos. But this sort of socio-political pranking is quickly revealed to be delusional window-dressing for a crime film that hopefully attempts to position itself as the Asian-American Goodfellas.
Like Better Luck Tomorrow, Revenge of the Green Dragons tries to cut cool-movie poses under the pretense of providing an alternative racial viewpoint to typical genre tropes. But the film is really about the joy of killing, of reveling in power over comparatively defenseless shop owners and women and small children, the latter of which are shown, in an unusually brutal first act, to be beaten within an inch of their lives over and over, so as to properly condition/brainwash them for induction into the Green Dragons, a New York gang run by Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr.), who oversees street wars under the pretense of operating as a vaguely defined white-collar businessman.
Say what you will about Goodfellas, but Martin Scorsese (who’s credited here as an executive producer) allowed his audience to discern, in that film’s pointed amorality, the compassion that was missing from the “heroes.” With Revenge of the Green Dragons, directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo do what Scorsese’s often accused of doing: wallowing in debasement for the sake of it. The film has little narrative shape, which is a surprise considering that Lau co-directed the sprite, ingenious Infernal Affairs, and little formal flair. One instance of rape or beating or killing literally bleeds into another, and it’s all awkwardly tied together by the narration of Sonny (Justin Chon), the film’s leading non-presence, who must eventually awaken to the fact that he works for unruly monsters. There’s a pretty good twist at the end, and Ray Liotta occasionally pops in to remind you that you really should be watching Goodfellas instead, but these are petty compensations for seeing a film that more readily recalls the easy reductive nihilism of that asshole frat-boy favorite, The Boondock Saints.