Rating: 3 /5
Hear the lion roar as the boys from Jack Neo’s hugely successful franchise, ‘Ah Boys to Men 1 & 2’ are back.
This time Tosh Zhang and Wang Wei Liang take on the leading roles, reuniting with Maxi Lim, Noah Yap and Charlie Goh.
The story focuses on Tosh’s character, Shi Shen, who is the lead disciple and the best lion dancer in the Tiger Crane Lion Dance Association, having won the National Lion Dance Championship three years in a row.
However, he feels restricted by the traditional mind-set of Master He (played by Chen Tian Wen), who simply refuses to accept any new ideas for change and insists on doing the things the old ways.
After an embarrassing incident involving a rival lion dance troupe and Master He’s daughter Xiao Yu (played by newcomer Eva Cheng), Shi Shen decides to branch out on his own, taking a few of Tiger Crane’s followers with him to join another troupe that allows him to experiment with new forms that fuses hip hop with lion dance movements.
Also read: "Ah Boys" roar in 'The Lion Men'
As a major lion dance competition is coming up, Mikey (Wang Wei Liang) is groomed to be Shi Shen’s successor, but he faces one problem, his fear of heights.
With help from his buddies, he conquers his internal struggles and fear of ascending the high pillars that he must dance from. Things get more complicated and the rivalry intensifies as both Shi Shen and Mikey fall for Xiao Yu.
Lion dance action and sweet romance
Similar to the first ‘Ah Boys to Men’, ‘The Lion Men’ is mainly about introducing the characters and setting up their conflicts and relationships. This movie will not provide any conclusion — the grand finale showdown will come in Part Two, slated for release later this year.
Nevertheless, the movie promises to deliver entertainment in spades, especially with acrobatic lion dance moves and exciting fight scenes, where much of the credit goes to Hong Kong action choreographer Ma Yuk Sing and professional lion dance consultants, as well as consummate actors like the martial arts trained Chen Tian Wen and Wang Wei Liang performing several of the challenging stunts themselves.
You can really feel the sweat and pain whenever Wang falls from the high beams while attempting the difficult manoeuvres, which we can see during the end credits outtakes.
The romantic subplot involving the brash Tosh Zhang and the very sweet Eva Cheng are also convincing and seldom seen in a Jack Neo movie, where the two young actors share genuine chemistry and have their first on-screen kiss.
Weak comedy and blatant product placement
What is sorely lacking however is laugh-out-loud comedy, as funny man Noah Yap is not given much material to work with, being mostly relegated to being a sidekick distraction.
Some of the gags in the movie, such as one that involves Noah giving away his Nets Flashcard to woo a girl, fall flat with little payoff, and only seem to serve the function of a blatant product placement.
But with a production budget of $4 million, the highest ever even for a Jack Neo film, it is not surprising for the movie to have an incessant onslaught of sponsors’ messages and product placements, though these prove to be quite distracting after a while.
Newcomer Jasper Lai who plays the villain from a rival troupe did provide some comic relief with his over the top performance, and even the usually serious Chen Tian Wen, who played the father in ‘Ilo Ilo’, manages to act goofy despite his role as Master He, sprouting some of the punchiest and funny dialect laden one liners in the movie.
Improved visual effects but awkward pacing
Besides riffing on Hokkien aphorism and dialogue, writer director Jack Neo also loves to play with special effects in his movies.
Specifically for ‘The Lion Men’, he created a virtual ‘techno lion’, and other visual effects that are a nod to Hollywood super heroes like ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Spiderman’, which make extended appearances in Mikey’s dream sequences.
The effects-heavy scenes contribute little to the plot except to slow down the pacing of the movie which is already too long at 130 minutes. But it is worth mentioning that the visual effects in ‘The Lion Men’ are more convincing and a vast improvement from earlier Jack Neo movies.
No.1 box office champion
‘The Lion Men’ may not be among the best movies that Jack Neo has directed (that honour belongs to early works ‘I Not Stupid’ and ‘The Best Bet)’ but neither is it his worst, and it is certainly his most ambitious and largest scale project to date.
The natural chemistry and camaraderie among the young cast keep many scenes engaging despite the weak gags and long running time.
The infectious hip hop theme song by lead actor Zhang and supporting ballads performed by Wang showcase the musical talents and versatility of the young idols.
With savvy online social media marketing promoting the boys and their popular youth appeal, it is almost certain that ‘The Lion Men’ will be the number 1 box office champion during this Chinese New Year season.