Ah Boys to Men 3 Frogmen full movie review - Jack Neo's third instalment hits a franchise high-water mark with tighter storytelling, more precise - and more poignant - character beats and the same cast of misfits
What if, instead of Basic Military School (BMT) in Pulau Tekong, our favourite recruits were selected right from the onset to join the elite Naval Diving Unit (NDU) and underwent a forty-week training course to be frogmen?
That, in a nutshell, is how Jack Neo has set up this third instalment of the highest-grossing franchise in local movie history. Cynics who've never loved Jack Neo and his movies will certainly see this as a money-spinner, but 'Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen' is a surprisingly entertaining alternate story that stands on its own merits.
Chiefly, the decision not to split this movie into two ? which explains its two-and-a-half hour runtime ? is a wise one. Skimming over the Boys' requisite BMT training, Neo focuses instead on the land, sand and sea training in the weeks after that is unique to the NDU, including tyre flips, overhead boat push-ups, boat tosses (where a crew of eight men throw the boat into the air and catch it on the way down), flutter kicks (on land and at the beach), drown proofing, capsize drills, fins swimming, sea circuit training and culminating of course in the infamous Hell Week.
Like the first two movies, Neo juxtaposes their transformation within the camp and that outside the camp. For the large part, the characters are pretty much the same as the ones they played in the first two movies. Wang Weiliang's 'L O Bang King' is still the street-smart kid who knows how to make the best of his circumstances ? and that means running a small 'minimart' business in camp selling snacks to his platoon mates. As a testament to Weiliang's rising stardom, Neo gives his character much more depth and scope than before ? indeed, Weiliang's struggle to support and protect his sister from his drug-addicted mother comes to an unexpectedly emotional conclusion that ties in beautifully with a poignant display of humanity by his superiors, Alex (Tosh Zhang) and No 2 (Justin Dominic Misson).
Joshua Tan's Ken Chow is still struggling with girlfriend issues and looking for ways to 'keng', but (thankfully) there is no sob story here with his father (Richard Low) or for that matter his fastidious mother (Irene Ang). Maxi Lim's Aloysius Jin (or Zeng Xia Lang in Chinese) is still the annoying eager-to-please smart-aleck, but he wisely chooses to underplay than overplay his character's more ingratiating qualities this time round. Tosh's Sergeant Alex Ong remains tough but fair, and a much more nuanced character here in how he responds to Ken's 'chao keng' behaviour vis-à-vis 'Lobang King's' unusual request to book out to attend an urgent family matter late at night. Instead of re- playing the initial hostilities between 'Lobang King' and 'Wayang King', Neo introduces a new character in Hei Long (Wesley Wong), a new citizen from Hong Kong whose triad roots there have propagated into similar ties with the street gangs in Tiong Bahru. Through a series of unfortunate run- ins, Neo builds the conflict between the two that leads to an undeniably mawkish but nonetheless effective confrontation that earns our sympathies for both characters.
As they have demonstrated in the last two movies, the cast are Neo's strongest hand. Weiliang has perfected his 'ah beng' routine of mixing brashness and vulnerability, and proves himself again to be a truly versatile and natural performer. Tosh may be the same age as the recruits he presides over, but he yet again displays a commanding air of authority and an admirable sense of justice. Thrust into a much bigger role here is Misson as the notorious 'trainer from hell' ? so convincing is his tough-as-nails getup that we found it hard to distinguish the actor from his character, and that he isn't in fact an SAF regular simply playing the same part in the movie.
Neo's keen eye for casting has occasionally been undermined by his self-indulgent tendencies, but thankfully that's kept to a minimum here. His fascination with modern-day CGI manifests itself only once ? and briefly ? when 'Lobang King' recounts how he envisioned the NDU's iconic 'frog with wings' statue make a leap into the sky and into the sea when trying to sneak out of camp. He also emphasises the drama rather than the melodrama, in particular the drama between and within the recruits through the weeks of training. His play on common words, phrases and acronyms is at its sharpest in years ? and amusing asides like how NDU is abbreviated to be 'Night Delivery Unit' or how 'hum ka chan' actually means humble and garang largely hit the right notes. The structure of the NDU training itself also imposes discipline on his storytelling, and this is probably one of his most coherent and tightly knit films in recent years.
Much as we thought the 'Ah Boys to Men' franchise was done and dusted with a drama series and a musical following the two-part movies, Neo has proved that there is plenty of mileage left in the story of a ragtag group of misfits going through an indelible journey in every Singaporean male's transformation from teenager to young adult. Not just because of its theme, but also because of its treatment, its humour and its drama, we dare say you won't find a more relevant Singaporean film this year.