When he’s not playing basketball feeding his fish working in the mall food court or hanging out with nerdy hyper-manic Virgil (Jason Tobin) 16-year-old Ben (Parry Shen) is applying to Ivy League universities studying for exams and memorizing vocabulary words for the academic decathlon. He has a crush on his bio lab partner the pretty cheerleader Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) and finds himself hanging out with her with the blessing of her rich arrogant boyfriend Steve (John Cho) with whom he strikes up an uneasy friendship–until Ben learns Steve’s cheating on Stephanie. Ben is busy but bored. Life gets way more interesting when popular slick Daric (Roger Fan) who hangs out with Virgil’s thug cousin Han (Sung Kang) talks Ben and tag-along Virgil into selling cheat sheets. This evolves into selling drugs stealing and other nefarious activities. In short order this fearsome foursome is known around school for toting guns starting fights drinking heavily and dealing the best cocaine around. They do it because they can: Their intelligence makes them feel superior and the stereotypes associated with their race (they’re “the smart good kids”) enable them to get away with it until things spin out of control; Ben wakes up with nosebleeds from the drugs he did to stay up all night studying and his beloved fish die of neglect.
Shen as Ben doesn’t have as much personality as his three friends but that’s appropriate. Wide-eyed he absorbs what they do like a sponge stiff and unbending at first then happily going along with the slyly manipulative Daric after he realizes there are no prices to pay only rewards to gain for their nihilistic actions. All the teens down to the pertly innocent cheerleader and her boyfriend are not evil so much as simply morally bankrupt. You don’t really like any of them but you somehow understand why they do what they do. All actors are virtual unknowns but their performances are impressive.
Although the movie defiantly knocks the meek studious Asian stereotype upside down and around the corner their race ends up being almost beside the point. They could be the latchkey Everykids found in any upper-middle-class American community nowadays disaffected and bored with life in an increasingly short-attention-span pressure-cooker society. Director Justin Lin “gets” the essence of the kids and deftly handles their story with sharp editing edgy camerawork darkly funny script (some lines are priceless) and an excellent punk-pop soundtrack (fittingly Better Luck is the first theatrical acquisition for MTV Films). This film does run a little on the long side and makes one wonder if Lin had a hard time figuring out where and how to end it (reportedly the film’s shocking ending was actually toned down from what was originally intended).