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14 Nov 2012

Ah Boys to Men

Possibly the worst boot camp comedy ever, Ah Boys to Men fails in both what it depicts and how it depicts it.

Director: Jack Neo

Screenplay: Jack Neo, Link Sng

Cast: Joshua Ang, Richard Low, Irene Ang, Wang Lei

It's surprising that with National Service being the rite of passage for Singaporean males, that there hasn't been a major boot camp comedy from the local film industry since Army Daze. So Ah Boys to Men, with its boast of being the "first Singapore film with the most special effects", and the first film to show Singapore at war, arrives with a clap of thunder in its wake.

The resultant film, despite sponsorship from the Ministry of Defence, is sadly an all-around disappointment and possibly the worst boot camp comedy in the entire history of humanity, if it's even a comedy at all. Not a thing about the movie is competent: from the casting, to the direction, to the storyline, to the editing.

The story or what little there is of it is your basic rite of passage, though one where the conflicts and challenges the protagonist faces make no sense at all: Ken Chow is a recruit who enters Pulau Tekong boot camp unwillingly and tries to skive his way through the entire process while fretting over his girlfriend Amy, who is leaving to study in Australia. Along the way, his caricatured bubble wrap mom (a very annoying Irene Ang), skiver Uncle (Wang Lei) and gungho dad (Richard Low) all try to offer him different advice. So trying to send Amy off at the airport, who has apparently left him for another NSMan who happens to be a Captain and scholar (really, which conscript military anywhere else in the world has made girlfriends leaving boot camp trainees as big a cultural meme as Singapore has?), Ken tries the ultimate skive, to deliberately cause himself to get heat stroke so that he can probably bust out of hospital in a patient gown and then rush to meet Amy at the airport…because you know, such an appearance wouldn't be totally humiliating and cause her to make up her mind and leave him even more.

The worst thing about the film is that even if Neo wants to give a positive portrayal of the Singapore Armed Forces and to highlight the importance of National Defence, even as propaganda the movie fails. Other than an opening fantasy sequence (the "war" thing talked about in the movie's publicity) where an unknown Cobra Command-like military force invades the country where the SAF is shown to be decidedly incompetent. (Really, I thought our fighters should have been scrambled from Australia even before an aggressor attacks if an aerial bombardment is planned. Isn't that why our Air Force trains there?) The SAF as shown in the movie comes across as having the world's pansiest training regime and drill instructors. Given that other countries are more than willing to show boot camp as being far from a cakewalk where swearing, pranks, dropping it and giving twenty or more for the slightest reason, and hazing abound, the fact that there's barely an F-bomb dropped and only one heavily shaded Hokkien expletive ('CB') renders the film rather tame and unrealistic, as though made precisely for the audience of bubble-wrap moms and dads that the film itself appears to be satirizing, which it probably is.

Jack Neo pads out his elementary story with lots of filler material, including throwaway gags that exist at the expense of character-based humour, amateurish performances, and even a few musical numbers recycled from his sketch comedy days. As the film closes with a montage that appears to promise the next instalment being about Ken Chow putting his skiving ways behind to toughen himself up, one can only hope that the next instalment will deliver a more warts and all depiction of military life, but I'm not holding out much hope.

Right now the movie stands as possibly the worst boot camp comedy ever, failing both because of what it depicts and how it depicts it.

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