This leads one to anticipate a robust, fully nuanced portrait of a New York City gang — with the intriguing twist that this is an Asian one — along the lines of the master’s great crime movies. He gave his stamp of approval, didn’t he?
But no, this film from Hong Kong veteran Andrew Lau and Asian-American filmmaker Andrew Loo is routine in every way, actually a cut or two below the average Hong Kong actioner of ten to fifteen years ago.
When Hong Kong’s film industry was still vibrant, it regularly cranked out densely plotted crime stories with vivid characters, stylish action and amazing stunts. “Green Dragon” bears no resemblance to such films, choosing to slug its way through the de rigueur formula of gang initiation, casual brutality, amorality and contempt for all societal norms.
Its characters are banal and undistinguished, none raising his head above the herd of sociopathic personalities to distinguish himself or cause one to attach even slight empathy. Any character who momentarily wonders about the human carnage the gang so relishes is seen staring off into middle space with a frown on his face.
This dismal film doesn’t even possess the eye-catching visuals or large-sized personalities that populated the blaxploitation films of the ‘70s.
About the only intriguing thing that emerges from this look at the New York Chinatown gangs of the 1980s is the startling indifference to their development and reign of terror by the white crime-fighting community, meaning the NYPD and FBI.
But this interesting factoid could be gleaned from a magazine article, perhaps like the one by Fredric Dannen wrote on which Loo and Michael Di Jiacomo based their screenplay. No need to subject oneself to flat drama and run-of-the-mill violence.
If the movie is any way accurate, then you wonder how the gang flourished at all.
Ostensibly involved in human and drug trafficking, according to the script the Green Dragon gang mostly involves itself in petty grievances and bloody revenge over slights such as a gangster’s girlfriend being thrown out of a Chinatown restaurant where she refused to pay.
The story tries to focus on two immigrant “brothers” from China, Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu), not blood brothers but rather raised together amid dire poverty amid anti-immigrant prejudice. Early scenes barely touch on family or school, the latter only to detail a vicious beating of a boy for no reason that the film explains.
The two drift into a gang as if no other options were available with Steven becoming increasingly unstable and violent. Sonny hooks up with young woman (Shuya Chang) in an ill-fated romance that will ultimately force him to seek revenge against his own gang including its arrogant leader Paul (Harry Shum Jr.)
In other words, the same old same-old.
No character or actor seizes the screen in any compelling way as the movie’s two directors — why two in this case? — divert their tale into episodes of relentless murder, torture and rape that serve little purpose in any understanding of these gangs.
Substitute pasta for chow mien and Italian for Cantonese and you’ve got a mindless though more traditional gangster movie that Scorsese himself would never touch. What made him attach his name to this rubbish?
Opens: October, 24, 2014 (A24)
Production companies: IM Global and Martin Scorsese present an A24 Films release produced by The 7th Floor, Initial A Entertainment Cast: Justin Chon, Kevin Wu, Harry Shum Jr., Shuya Chang, Leonard Wu, Geoff Pierson, Ray Liotta
Directors: Andrew Lau, Andrew Loo
Screenwriters: Michael Di Jiacomo, Andrew Loo
Based on an article by: Frederic Dannen
Producers: Stuart Ford, Andrew Lau, Allen Bain, Jesse Scolaro, Ara Katz
Executive Producers: Martin Scorsese, Steve Squillante, Deepak Nayar, Claudie Chung, Alan Pao, Michael Bassick, Art Spigel, Steven Chao
Director of photography: Martin Ahlgren
Production designer: Wing Lee Music: Mark Kilian
Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
No rating, 94 minutes