(On Cable TV, October 2014) My motives were a bit superficial in wanting to watch Better Luck Tomorrow: writer/director Justin Lin went on to direct several installments in the Fast & Furious series, which featured a charismatic character named Han as played by Sung Kang. I’d heard that Lin’s first film featured the same actor playing a similar (perhaps identical) character and wanted from where both the director and the character came from. But Better Luck Tomorrow ends up being a somewhat likable high-school crime drama, featuring well-off Asian-American teenagers turning to criminal activities in order to spice up their overachieving lifestyle. It’s funny and sympathetic up to the point where things turn dark and ugly, but this depiction of characters often glimpsed as stereotypes in other teenager movies feels fresh and interesting. There are a few laughs, a few cringes and a few moments of condemnation for the characters turning bad. The slide into serious crime is as shocking as the characters are engaging when they’re merely being bad boys. Lin’s direction is stylish and engaging (especially considering the limited budget of the film) and the young actors all do good work. Sung Kang does play a younger “Han” with understated cool, while Parry Shen anchors the film as the protagonist and Karin Anna Cheung plays a love interest with quite a bit more depth than you’d expect. All in all, Better Luck Tomorrow ends up being a much better experience than simply answering a trivia question about Justin Lin and Sung Kang
(In theaters, April 2011) My unexplainable love for The Fast and the Furious series suddenly gets a lot more explainable with this surprising fifth segment: Reaching well beyond the street-racing antics of the previous volumes and deeper into the criminal action/thriller mode, Fast Five manages to satisfyingly weave together plot threads and a dozen characters from the four previous films, while delivering inventive action sequences. The prologue effectively sets the tone and the film’s lack of regard for physics: thus reassured, we can enjoy the rest of the film, the over-the-top action sequences, the reunion of the series regulars and the colourful Rio de Janeiro locale. This has to be one of the best pure-action movies of the past few years: It’s snappy, it’s competent, it doesn’t take itself seriously and when it clicks, it really works. Vin Diesel growls as well as he can, and he’s joined by Dwayne Johnson for a head-on collision between two of the most credible action heroes of the moment. While the script isn’t perfect (a few lulls; a few nonsensical plot development; little refinement by way of dialogue), it’s pretty good at giving a few moments to everyone in the cast, at setting up the interesting action sequences, and even at winking at the audience: There are a number of inside jokes for series fans here, perhaps the biggest being a cut that skips over the film’s usual street-racing sequence. The cars may not be as nice at the previous films, but the action sequences are quite a bit more striking. I wish, however, that director Justin Lin would open up his action sequences a bit more, lay off the crazy editing and let the long-shots speak for themselves. (Fortunately, he’s already much better now than in the previous two films.) Don’t leave during the credits: there’s a short scene that will please series fans while setting up a promising sixth instalment.