Director: Jack Neo
Cast: Apple Chan, Joshua Tan, Tosh Zhang, Wang Weiliang, Maxi Lim, Noah Yap, Charlie Goh, Ryan Lian, Jaspers Lai
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Clover Films, J-Team Productions, mm2 Entertainment and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 9 November 2017
Synopsis: Singapore's most successful movie franchise is back! After leaving the military, Lobang, Wayang King, Sergeant Ong, and Ken Chow are all busy with their respective career as civilians. That's until they are called back to serve the nation again under the Singapore Armed Forces' Armoured Formation. Now they must juggle between work and their reservist duties. What hilarious situations will happen as they train together and their military roles are reversed? There'll be new enemy threats and their brotherhood will be put to the test.
Thanks to the commemoration of 50 years of National Service (otherwise known as ‘NS50’), Singapore’s favourite band of brothers is back to remind NSFs, NSmen and the rest of the Singapore resident population just how fundamental NS is to the survival of the nation. Oh yes, make no mistake, the ‘Ah Boys to Men’ (ABTM) films were first and foremost great PR for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and its mission to ensure peace and security – true enough, that message is repeated in the first few minutes of this fourth instalment – for there would otherwise be no raison d'être for the SAF to lend its facilities, trainers and most importantly equipment for the filming of these movies.
But under Singapore’s most commercially successful director Jack Neo’s hands, they have also become an opportunity for anyone and everyone who has gone through NS to reminisce about their own one-of-a-kind life-changing experience, as well as to compare notes on the evolution of the NS experience through the years. It is for this reason that all three ABTM films sit on the top-ten box-office list of most successful local films of all time, which in turn has become de facto formula for this entry set within an SAF Armour reservist unit. Think that Infantry has it much easier than Armour? You haven’t seen how ‘river crossing’ was done in the 1970s. Unfamiliar with what a ‘blanket party’ is? You’ll need to ask someone who’s done NS in the 1970s. Even better, two flashback sequences featuring Wang Lei as an Armour sergeant will demonstrate just how things have changed in four decades.
Like the previous chapter, this sequel is only a continuation from the earlier films in the loosest sense of the word. The cast, characters and their personalities remain the same – among them, Joshua Tan’s self-absorbed Ken Chow, Maxi Lim’s earnest and eager-to-please Aloysius Jin, Wang Weiliang’s street-smart Lobang King, Noah Yap’s brash IP Man, and last but not least Tosh Zhang’s stern but caring platoon sergeant Alex Ong – but their vocations have been entirely switched out (surely you weren’t expecting them to go from ‘frogmen’ to Armour troops?). Neo has also added here Ryan Lian’s stoic Keng Long, Ben Logan Sng’s arrogant C E Oh (he is also Alex’s boss at work – get it?) and two token minority characters played by Hafiz Aziz and Kishan J. who deserve way more screen time than they get. Except for Lobang (whom you can count on to deliver the wise-cracks) and Alex (who gets a thankless side plot involving his loving grandmother’s efforts to find him a girlfriend), the rest are intended as stock types of the kinds of people you meet in army, so there is even less character development here than in any of the earlier three movies.
While the first two movies were structured around the ten-week Basic Military Training and the third around the Naval Diving Unit training, this one is built around a two-week In-Camp Training (ICT) – or more accurately, the fourth such call-up for SGT Alex and his men. Within that, Neo and his co-writer Ivan Ho build the narrative around three issues – one, the cavalier attitude that NSmen bring to their ICT training; two, the commitments that NSmen need to juggle outside of camp (i.e. work and family) during ICT; and three, the ‘culture shock’ that NSmen would probably have to adjust to if they were under the authority of a female officer, played here by Apple Chan’s by-the-books LTA Zhuang Xinyi.
Even with a generous two-plus hour runtime, these are hefty themes to juggle at the same time, and true enough, the storytelling doesn’t flow as coherently or as fluently as it should. In particular, the character dynamics are somewhat awkward and unwieldy – a disagreement that starts between IP Man and Keng Long that escalates to involve Lobang is too easily resolved; IP Man’s sexist bias against LTA Zhuang plays out in cartoonish ways and comes to a head in a contrived kickboxing match; and last but not least, Ken’s conflict with Aloysius is re-ignited then doused all too conveniently after an unfortunate encounter with a swarm of bees. Notwithstanding, Neo does manage some poignant moments, such as the display of brotherhood that eventually wins over LTA Zhuang and the latter’s own professionalism that eventually wins the respect of the men.
More significantly, ABTM4 offers a never-before-seen display of SAF armour drills, outfield training and firepower on the big screen. To be fair to Neo, it would not have been possible to construct a hypothetical war scenario in order to show the full tactical response of our armoured regiment (you can imagine for reasons of sensitivity why the SAF would not agree to that at all), but there is enough that he tries to demonstrate within a highly abbreviated ‘war game’ to impress. It should however be said that those looking forward to watching the tanks deployed in urban warfare (which, to be fair, the promotion for the movie had teased) would be sorely disappointed, as these scenes are left to an epilogue that is honestly redundant and pointless. Where he has been given leeway – and which he does capitalise to the movie’s advantage – is to film within the confined interiors of an actual SAF armoured vehicle, capturing intimately the sweat, discomfort and even claustrophobia of the men squeezed shoulder to shoulder inside.
Yet coming after the series high-water mark of ABTM3: The Frogmen, this succeeding instalment is more than a little underwhelming. Sure, Neo has gotten better at weaving the inevitable (and copious) product placements into the story, but apart from that and the novelty from watching our SAF armoured vehicles in action, everything else feels like an inferior rehash from the earlier trilogy. We’ve seen the personality conflicts done better, we’ve seen their camaraderie expressed much more stirringly, and we’ve heard the PSAs in every one of the past three movies before. What about the bit on gender equality you say? Well that’s a little disingenuous we say, considering how Neo inserts an offensively sexist sequence where the boys fantasise being at a waterpark with booby babes in bikinis, much like how Lobang daydreamt of being in a hot tub with equally skimpily dressed females in the first movie. The chemistry between the boys is still just as infectious, but the unfortunately scattershot plotting and the clumsy character work make ABTM4 a disappointing sequel on the whole. Because NS is so close to people’s hearts, there will be bits that resonate with the male citizen demographic, and in that regard and that regard alone, ABTM4 has just about enough reason to justify its otherwise superfluous existence.
(Not nearly as accomplished as the series high-water mark that was ABTM3: The Frogmen, this slapdash follow-up with its scattershot storytelling and clumsy character work still boasts poignant moments that will resonate with any and every NSman)
Review by Gabriel Chong