Last year, director Jack Neo stormed the local box office with the first installment of his Ah Boys To Men duology. The film didn't receive particularly good reviews, but it nevertheless raked in over S$6 million to make it the highest-grossing Asian film of all time in Singapore. That's right - highest-grossing Asian film, beating out movies starring the likes of international superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Come Friday, the sequel will be marching resolutely into cinemas to take full advantage of the Chinese New Year box office rush. It's probably pretty safe to say that the critic-proof Ah Boys 2 is likely to completely decimate its competition, despite being a poorer film than its predecessor in almost every respect.
Much of the first film focused on the spoilt, good-looking Ken (Joshua Tan), who had to grow up overnight after his dad (Richard Low) suffered a paralysing stroke. As a result, the section's star slacker has changed his attitude about the army, and now finds himself siding more often than not with sanctimonious goody-two-shoes Aloysius (Maxi Lin). This puzzles and infuriates his previous partners-in-crime, especially his good buddy Lobang (Wang Weiliang). Can the section mates rise above mutual distrust and adversity to form a bond that will stand the test of time?
That question pretty much has only one answer - the story beats in Ah Boys 2 will be familiar and obvious to pretty much everyone. Of course the boys will fight and fret and bicker with one another. How could misunderstandings not pile on top of paranoia to create more suspicion and unhappiness? Someone will inevitably make the noble sacrifice or unexpected confession that causes enemies to lay aside their grudges and become friends. Anyone who's been hooked on a drama serial, read a book or watched a movie about high-school kids will know where the story is going.
But predictability isn't even the worse of this film's crimes. It's actually kinda fun to watch the boys go through the paces, with Ken now finding himself more on the sidelines even as the cheerful, affable Lobang of the first film morphs into the sequel's unexpected antagonist. The characters are stereotypes, sure, but they're fun to watch nonetheless. The trouble is Neo has saddled his boys with a terrible script that relies far too heavily on crass humour for laughs. There must have been another way to show the boys being at odds with one another that didn't involve bodily functions and poop jokes.
Anyone who thought the first film was sexist is going to be even more appalled by what goes down in the sequel. The main female character, Ken's mom (Irene Ang), is portrayed as an insensitive, single-minded idiot with little capacity for emotional growth, even after her husband suffers a stroke, while all other incidental female 'characters' come across either as sex objects or brainless sluts. A film about a group of boys training to become soldiers was never likely to feature a perfectly even-handed treatment of both sexes, but the casual objectification of women in Ah Boys 2 - including the troop of girls who had enlisted in the army alongside the titular batch of recruits - is distracting and, on occasion, thoroughly off-putting.
It's a toss-up as to whether Neo has more effectively unleashed his bag of special effects tricks this time. In the first film, he whipped up an over-polished war-time scenario that was actually crushingly effective... until it became disappointingly clear that it was contained safely within the realm of a computer game. The sequel sees planes, tanks and even submarines deployed across the Wisma Atria food court, as Aloysius is lectured by his dad (Chen Tianwen) on the necessity of turning the other cheek. Again, the metaphor and weight of the 'lesson' being imparted turns out to be pretty pointless, but there's no denying that it's really cool to see tanks roll out and fighter jets dive and swoop amongst the familiar hawker stalls.
Neo remains a dab hand at tugging on viewers' heartstrings - a feat that's all the more impressive considering how offensive the rest of the film can sometimes be. Even the hardest of hearts will melt when the boys do - not literally, but figuratively, when they're handed letters that give them a small connection to the homes and people they've left behind. It's a painfully manipulated (and manipulative!) moment, but it nevertheless manages to serve up some genuine, powerful emotion from the boys that almost makes up for everything else in the movie.
For all that has already been said, the main reason to catch Ah Boys 2 is to watch its impressive young cast at work. Tan seems to find it pretty tough-going to make his character's transition from sinner to saint, and is perhaps the most wooden of the lot - but even he and his perpetual hangdog expression are serviceable enough. Lin and Noah Yap (as bitter dumped boyfriend IP Man) are both good in their roles, but it's really Wang who walks away with the entire film. He makes Lobang's switch from sidekick to antagonist effortlessly, somehow managing to retain his character's rough, sweet charm even when he should be losing a great deal of audience sympathy for some of the terrible things he does.
All in all, Ah Boys 2 is a misfire in practically every way. Once in a while, the film's heart struggles out from beneath a host of gross, sexist jokes and almost overbearingly chest-thumping patriotism. But it doesn't do so anywhere near often enough to deserve its sure-to-be-enormous box-office take.
Summary: The first film was criticised for being too wrapped up in one boy's story; this one should be lambasted for spending too much time in the toilet.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars