Early December sees a strange glut at the cineplex. For some reason, every major holiday release waits until mid-December to unleash their big-budget, four-quadrant crowd-pleasers (like “Annie,” “Exodus” and “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”). So early December becomes a kind of frozen wasteland for movies. It’s a good time to reflect on all the movies we saw this year, get ready for the ridiculous award season and get a head start on those “Best Of” lists, which we critics are all so fond. In lieu of this lull in the cinematic season, I decided to skip the theatrical offerings in favor of some OnDemand features seeing their first wide release online. I viewed “Camp X-Ray,” which stars Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”) and the Martin Scorsese-produced gangland drama “Revenge of the Green Dragons.”
I won’t lie. When I saw the title “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” I was thinking I was going to be seeing a movie like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “House of Flying Daggers.” To my surprise, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” isn’t a wire-fu, chopsocky spectacular. Instead, it’s a very dark look into the world of 1980s Asian gangs in New York City. It’s a very brutal, unapologetic tragedy that wears its inspirations squarely on its bloody sleeves.
If you weren’t already aware, being an illegal immigrant isn’t a lot of fun. Sure, the Republicans would have you believe it’s a paradise where people enter the country and do a Mexican hat dance on the U.S. Constitution while impregnating our women, taking our jobs and mocking our average-sized genitalia. The reality is a little more grim. It involves torture, exploitation, and being forced to grow up way too fast. Sonny (Justin Chon) and his brother Steven (Kevin Wu) are brought to America for a better life but end up being brutalized by local gang members who slowly bring them into their fold.
The life of a Green Dragon isn’t easy. They are respected by their peers and feared by outsiders. For the first time in their young lives, they finally have a sense of community. The film evolves into a more complex crime story. As they grow into their roles in the gang, they wind up in a series of conflicts that ultimately lead to their ruination. “Revenge of the Green Dragon” doesn’t glamorize the gang life. It paints it with broad, horrible, bloody strokes that spill off the canvas.
Seeing Martin Scorsese’s name credited as producer makes sense: The film apes the style of Scorsese films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” The connection is made even more clear by Ray Liotta’s appearance in the movie. There’s a lot of narration, which feels like a device used to tie everything together. The film is rough, both in subject matter and technique. “Revenge of the Green Dragons” tries to be an Asian version of the aforementioned Scorsese films and movies like “American Gangster,” but the cast never brings the kind of gravitas that makes the movie feel anything other than sleight.
Likewise, “Camp X-Ray” deals with another kind of tragedy: the continued incarceration of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay. Many have forgotten about the detainees who are still rotting away as our endless “war on terror” shifts focus to threats like ISIS. September 11, 2001 feels like a lifetime ago. It would be like having the internment camps where we housed Japanese Americans in World War II and just leaving them there well into the 1950s.
In the film, Cole (Kristen Stewart) is transferred to Gitmo a.k.a Camp X-Ray, where she helps guard the militants our government believes are too dangerous to be set free. She finds her assignment frustrating. This is not the war she signed up for; it’s not war at all. Cole suffers abuse from her fellow soldiers as well as the detainees. The only real connection she makes is with an inmate named Ali (Peyman Moaadi). Their relationship is complicated and difficult. “Camp X-Ray” avoids easy interactions and opts for the awkward difficulty of two people from different cultures forced to interact; both of them looking for a semblance of sense in a world that provides them little.
I genuinely was surprised by “Camp X-Ray,” most notably by Kristen Stewart’s performance. Her chilly demeanor works well for the part of Cole, and she delivers the most human performance of her career.
So many movies about the consequences of our decade-long, unofficial police action against countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have tried to do too much. “Camp X-Ray” sets the right tone. It’s a movie about people. While the message that we might not be so different after all is about as original as the wallflower getting the handsome dude at the end of the romantic comedy, I still found myself enjoying this subtle and well put-together drama.
Revenge of the Dragons
Starring Justin Chon and Kevin Wu
Directed by Wai-keung Lau and Andrew Loo; Rated R
Starring Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi
Directed by Peter Sattler; Rated R