Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

Directed by Justin Lin
Written by Ernesto Foronda & Justin Lin & Fabian Marquez

I brought this movie into my Fast & Furious marathon for a few reasons, but for many it may seem like it doesn’t belong, and any connection between Better Luck Tomorrow and the series is tangential at best. The obvious connection is the inclusion of a character named Han, an Asian American played by Sung Kang, who develops a penchant for crime while being the coolest badass there is and driving a retro Ford Mustang. But the film is also directed by Justin Lin, who also introduced Kang’s Han in Tokyo Drift, and continued to utilize his popularity with fans through Fast & Furious 6. Otherwise, there are no Torettos, no Brian O’Connor, not even really any cool, fast cars. So as I watched this film, I tried to look at it completely on its own and seperate, while also taking note of Han and any related bits that might tie in to the series, or inform on the character beyond the film. It was a fun exercise to be sure!

Ben (Parry Shen) is a bright, young Asian American student who has hopes of attending an Ivy League for college. He manages to boost his resume with various extracurricular activities, including making the JV basketball team. His friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) is under the same boat, but a little less straight laced than Ben. The pair, with the held of Virgil’s cousin Han (Sung Kang) start with some small scale crime activity to make a few extra bucks. But once Ben starts to fall for his lab partner Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), and the group falls in with her boyfriend Steve (John Cho) and senior Daric (Roger Fan), their criminal activities spiral to the point that Ben wants out.

Early on you can detect the style and confidence of director Justin Lin. While the film feels very different than an action movie like Fast & Furious, you get the sense that Lin displays the pedigree to handle such a cool, stylish property. But the wonder of the movie is that it is a much smaller, character focused film than what the populace considers the mega-blockbuster series. Lin, even apart from Fast & Furious, has stuck mostly to known properties and action (Star Trek Beyond, upcoming Bourne sequel), which is a shame because Better Luck Tomorrow works extremely well as a small telling a story about a group of Asian American teenagers. I would love to see him return to a smaller scale film.

The cast, largely unknown (at least at the time) is mostly good. We now know Sung Kang and John Cho, but Parry Shen, Jason Tobin and Roger Fan are all good here too. There are moments that are a little rough around the edges, line deliveries that could have been handled better with an additional take, or even a more experienced actor, but the ensemble works very well together and I would have hated to break that up. The casting is mostly perfect in that regard. But the most impressive aspect of the film is the pacing of the film, with Lin showing a sense of restraint to let the story develop and eventually explode in the third act. As we go along with Ben and his friends, we know the deeper they go, the worse it’ll become for them, but Lin and the cast present such sympathetic characters that we can’t help but root for them, hope for the best. It all happens surprisingly organically.

In terms of Han, I can totally see this as the same character, as Kang and Lin have stated multiple times in interviews. Early on, you can see his penchant for nice cars (the Mustang), and even for crime, while also being noble and likable, one of the defining characteristics of Han in the Fast & Furious series. He is often the voice of reason here, wanting the benefits of the minor crimes, but also being very smart about pushing things too far. Honestly, this film really grows on you, as the film slowly develops over time, building to the explosive third act which really puts this movie over the top. I have a suspicion that this is a film which would be solid on a rewatch, if not even better. Even with the elements that show a young cast and filmmaker, it’s packed with great ideas and even better executions. An easy recommendation as a great film, regardless of its tentative connection to the Fast & Furious series.

★★★☆☆ – LIKED IT

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