In Better Luck Tomorrow, a clique of Asian-American high school students become bad-boy criminals, hatching petty scams as they indulge in drugs and violence. What’s notable about them is the way that they remain tightly wired academic stars obsessed with nailing their college apps; they turn delinquency into the ultimate extracurricular activity. That sounds like a trendy notion — here come the killer geeks! — except that cowriter-director Justin Lin has captured something new to movies: the tenor and style of an Asian-American youth culture that sees no contradiction between punk aggression and brainiac fervor.
Ben (Parry Shen), the central figure, is a benevolent kid with spiky hair and a soft morose face. He has a crush on his lab partner (Karin Anna Cheung), and the way he buzzes around her and her rich boyfriend (John Cho) makes the movie, at times, feel like a John Hughes triangle with edgier DNA. It’s the intensity of Ben’s virgin-nerd dissatisfaction that leads him to override his best instincts and write cheat sheets for $50 a pop. Before long, he’s helping his buddies, like smooth Han (Sung Kang) and crazy Virgil (Jason Tobin), execute robberies and worse.
I wish ”Better Luck Tomorrow” didn’t go over the top, with the hero pushing himself to a place that isn’t remotely plausible. Yet Lin works with a rhythmic observational flair that outweighs the movie’s flaws. It’s a long way from Long Duk Dong.