Review: 'Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen'
The biggest surprise about ‘Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen’ is that is can stand on its own as a movie. This is in spite of the use of the same motley bunch of characters, and the same premise of a grueling course as some kind of rites of passage that the boys must go through and most of all, the use of the less familiar navy as a setting. The film is really ‘Ah Boys to Men’ in an alternate universe. Characters from the army universe get transplanted into the navy universe but with a few additional characters from both heaven and hell.
The movie begins with reprising the structure of ‘Ah Boys to Men 1’ – the ‘what if’ security disaster that necessitates the need for the armed forces. This time, instead of ‘war’ in Singapore, it takes a leaf from the recent string of hostage crises and creates a hostage situation on a vessel out at sea. The Singapore Navy is deployed to rescue the hostages, offering the familiar showcase of its weaponry and fighting tactics. Interestingly the captors here speak with an American accent with a tinge of Bobbi Tonelli. We are not sure what is meant to be taken away from this. As expected, the actions ends with a sort-of cliffhanger, like in the first edition, except that the narrator’s voice (Aloysius Jin) mentions that it is not a game. The film then uses a lame approach of rehashing the old scenes from ‘Ah Boys to Men 1’ and giving them a navy twist. The effect of this is somewhat uninspiring at first but actually worthy of a few giggles. The most classic scene is Ken’s welcoming home party. Which mimicks the one in the first edition. This is Jack Neo’s subversive humour at its best – a horde of kids dressed in navy uniforms welcome Ken home in an innocent round of cosplay only to be given an awkward taste of the real Navy when they are ‘punished’ with push ups.
While the movie sticks with the ‘rites of passage in training camp’ plot, the story is a lot tighter and more gratifying than the previous two editions, demonstrating the fact that practice does make perfect, though its not everyday that the box office warrants you to make a sequel. Details of the enlistment procedures, training activities and little non-plot-additive sub-plots are kept economical. Instead, the movie conscientiously focuses on the exposition of the characters. Quite discernably, the character backstories carry more weight this time, making their individual episodes more compelling.
A few character threads brought forth the point. Lobang’s character was thoughtfully developed in this edition. He is not just your token ‘Sim Lim Ah Beng’ but really a sensible survivor who driven by his tough circumstances has become the street smart ‘Lobang’. Through the heart-renching performances of Aileen Tan as the drug-addict mother (not to mention Lobang’s endearing sister), we are transported deeper into his world and are able to connect with a character beyond the caricature.
‘Black Dragon’ is a new kid on the block (though we also notice the disappearance of some older characters and ethnic minorities. There is a new ‘Ang Moh’ recruit though his role is negligible.) If you think ‘Lobang’ was the token gangster in the film, he is just a tame fox compared to ‘Black Dragon’ who operates a gang and fists his way through everything. The script delightfully establishes his tension with his parents, exposing his inner conflict and providing some back story to his behavior.
One of the biggest challenges of writing a multi-character screenplay is connecting the disparate dots seamlessly, making sure the plot flows while the individual characters are going through their transition arcs. The movie scored in this respect with a calculated balance of the believable and the surprising. One classic scene is the duel between law-abidding Aloysius Jin and ‘Black Dragon’. For half the movie, the audience may have wondered who will it take to tame this dragon, and Aloysius turned out to be the unlikely ‘hero’. Noticeably, Aloysius fights like a bull but still stays in character, bawling to the wall after every successful punch delivered to ‘Black Dragon’.
Lobang’s rescue mission of his sister provided another resonant point in the movie which gave it substantial weight without seeming too deliberate. In an action-packed, high adrenalin sequence, moral dilemmas are explored and suspense is kept over what will happen to the illegal ‘rescue mission’ and the two rescuers. With the help of ample build-up to this point, the dilemma is very real and without trying too hard, it begs us to ponder to rift between what are rules and what is right.
Speaking about what is right in the movie, what is not so ‘alright’ is the excessive moralizing by various characters. The movie’s narrator Aloysius Jin, of course, has the upper voice on moralizing, but the Officer-in-command, the warrant officer, the sergeant and various voices from the platoon also join in the moralizing chorus. In a scene in which ‘Lobang’ gets chided for short-changing a training officer’s girlfriend, he is told it is wrong because of the Navy code of conduct. What’s strange is that it is just wrong to short-change your customer. Period. No need for a military code of conduct to tell you that! Another set of cringe-worthy moments is the graduation ceremony which could be mistaken for a Navy recruitment ad, with family members singing praises of the navy and its training and reminding us why the hell they went through was necessary. If there was a prize for the worst product placement in the film (the product placements this time were more subtle in general), it would the appearance of KPMG staff at the graduation ceremony saying how proud they were of one of their prospective ‘soon-to-be auditors’ for completing the training, in unmistakable KPMG logo-emblazoned T-shirts.
‘Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen’ or even the trilogy owes a lot of its success to Jack Neo’s penchant for humour and affinity with street lingo. While the series has returned with more breathtaking drone-shots, slicker action and ahem, perkier physiques (from the ‘Ah Boys’ grueling pre-shoot training), what connects these boys back with the audience is the comedy. Comedy is used to diffuse moments, bridge the conversation gaps, explain the unexplainable and most of all, maintain a certain upbeat tempo that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats. In a setting where propaganda can get the better of the movie and the movie risks being seen as a vehicle for the Navy, humour makes this movie relevant to the rest of us who may have no intentions of rubbing shoulders with the Navy.
Review by Jeremy Sing