Thursday, October 19, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #15. "Revenge of the Green Dragons" (2014)

Scene from Revenge of the Green Dragons
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Revenge of the Green Dragons
Released: October 24, 2014
Release Number: 15
Directed By: Andrew Loo, Andrew Lau
Written By: Fredric Dannen (Article), Michael Di Jiacomo & Andrew Loo (Screenplay)
Starring: Justin Chon, Kevin Wu, Harry Shun Jr.
Two best friends rise through the ranks of New York's Chinese underworld in the 1980s.

Much like their previous film Son of a Gun, there was something appealing to A24 working with prestige filmmakers. With their fifteenth film, from co-directors Andrew Loo and Andrew Lau, Revenge of the Green Dragon initially looked to be a compelling departure from what came before. It was a film about the Asian American experience through a gritty cop drama. It also brought together the filmmaker behind Infernal Affairs (Lau) and producer Martin Scorsese. It was a team made in heaven, though its general success rate wouldn't be reflective of the talent and uniqueness on display. If anything, it was further fodder for the A24 rut that was 2014, and it wasn't nearly as fun as what came before.

In 2006, Scorsese directed an adaptation of the Asian crime thriller Infernal Affairs, directed by Lau. The Departed's commercial and critical success lead to a variety of accolades. This included Scorsese's first Oscar win for Best Director, along with his only Best Picture win. With the film's success, it helped to boost the interest in Infernal Affairs and Lau's career in general. While this partnership is largely impersonal, it added a certain intrigue to the next project that would have both of their names on it. Revenge of the Green Dragons was a film that was about crime through the eyes of Asian American immigrants. It was based around the article by Fredric Dannen, who chronicled the real life Green Dragons as they committed crimes throughout the 80's. The one thing that Lau latched onto was the presence of a dark story with two friends eventually forming a rivalry between each other. It was basically a chance to get interesting roles for a largely Asian cast.

One of Lau's caveats was that he wanted Asian-Americans. He didn't want to bring actors from overseas. While this was a chance for Asian-American actors to have a noteworthy film, its casting proved difficult. There wasn't much previous work to judge off of, so Lau and newcomer Loo spent a lot of time in the casting stage. It was considered to be longer than usual. Among noteworthy roles was Glee star Harry Shum Jr., who claimed to have had a "preppy" childhood that kept him from violent movies such as co-star Ray Liotta's iconic mobster film GoodFellas, was curious about the dark subject matter. Scorsese, who is known for films about New York history, claims to have not been aware about the real life Green Dragons in spite of being alive and in New York around the same time.

The film started production around Chinatown, New York in June of 2014. While Scorsese didn't have too much involvement with the production, Lau claims that he did provide script notes. Lau's biggest draw to the project was his chance to show an immigrant story that reflected the struggles he believed that people faced. He claimed that it wasn't just Asians who experienced this strife, claiming that it was similar to Mexicans in California. During promotion, Lau and Loo took heavy focus on these subjects, believing that it helped the film to stand out. Even if the film was largely a crime thriller not dissimilar from The Departed, his emphasis on Asian-American criminals was considered to be unique. He also believed that the cast and crew had become a family.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to middling reviews. Even then, Scorsese saw the film and gave it a positive review. As the film continued to play festivals, it had a limited theatrical release before being released on DirecTV. Lau has claimed that the film was a crowd pleaser and that it was successful enough to make a profit. The film received a 13% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, which also ranked among A24's lowest rated films to that date. Despite the low rating, Los Angeles Times' Martin Tsai gave it a positive review, claiming that "The representation of Asian American men as hot-blooded toughies in the film does put a dent in the omnipresent nerdy eunuch stereotype and the model-minority myth." New York Daily News' Jordan Hoffman reflected more of the consensus when he wrote that "This crime drama wants to be a Chinese-American GoodFellas, but it ends up just looking bad." Many praised its intentions, but were quick to note its generic execution.

Revenge of the Green Dragons was considered a misfire in every sense of the word. Despite having both Andrew Lau and Martin Scorsese attached, the high profile gig wasn't enough to get audiences' attention, or even their affection. It proved that while it's great to have a largely Asian-American cast in a movie, they too could make mediocre movies. In the grander sense, it was yet another forgettable movie from A24 in 2014 after a great debut the year prior. Despite this criticism, things were about to change. The studio was about to have a hit on their hands with a film that may have not been as successful as Spring Breakers or Under the Skin, but Laggies was a fun comedy that would start the conclusion of Year 2 on a pretty successful note.

Up Next: Laggies (2014)

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