The Pasukan Khas Laut (Naval Special Warfare Forces), commonly abbreviated PASKAL, is the principal special operations force of the Royal Malaysian Navy.
With that little excerpt in mind, you know what you’re going into. If you entered the cinema expecting a gritty and non-biased look at the Naval Special Warfare Forces’ life, well, don’t.
PASKAL ‘s tale is a true event of one Lieutenant Commander Arman Anwar and his team’s mission to rescue a tanker that was hijacked by Somalian Pirates in 2011. Alongside this, we get some insight into Arman’s personal life, his past, and the whole “one last mission” trope we’ve seen in dozens of action and heist films.
If you don’t mind a jingoistic attempt at getting young unaware Malaysians to sign up for PASKAL and its responsibilities, but with a fraction of Top Gun’s budget (a “recruitment ad” for America’s air force), then this film is for you.
Here’s the thing: I’m fine with propaganda films if they’re shot beautifully, directed well, features cool insight and brings more info and story angles into the fold that makes us invested. Look at Michael Moore’s films for proof of entertaining films with slanted political stances. Hell, Top Gun itself had a lot of cool-if-cheesy moments, a lot of drama, and a lot at stake for Tom Cruise’s Maverick.
Despite staying true to how an actual operation and sting goes, PASKAL sure as heck isn’t aiming to surpass those old films. It barely even tries to go beyond its template. With US$10 million to spare, you would expect a bit more grit and grime in the show’s few action setpieces.
But nope, there is no tension, no panic, no sense of danger in any of these action-packed-but-soulless scenes that focus more on protocol and SOPs than dramatization. Part of the problem is that director Adrian Teh is portraying the PASKAL squad a little too perfect save for a flashback death and a final act standoff (which I’ll get to later). Every character here is just a cypher and a setpiece spouting exposition and moving the plot along without any sort of emotional break and investment.
At least, that’s what happened in the first half of the film. Two-thirds in, we now focus a bit more on the life and times of our moustachioed hero Arman. The staples of a by-the-numbers action film are there: grumpy family member questioning our protagonist’s life choices with PASKAL, the widow Lily (played by Jasmine Suraya Chin) with a kid whose former living husband (Joshua, played by Henley Hii) was brothers in arms with the protagonist, the villain (Jeb, played by Ammar Alfian) who used to be in the PASKAL company before being a mercenary.
All of these tropes are there in Bahasa Melayu, and they’re presented as adequately as possible. They’re touched on a bit here and there but never explored beyond just casual mentions.
PASKAL offers nothing offensive to the eyes and ears, but nothing groundbreaking either. What could have been an emotional scene mid-way through a particular flashback ended up showcasing the worst aspects of actors who can’t emote without coming off as goofy.
What also could have been a great “let’s get the squad back together again” montage is hampered in its delivery, its accompanying score, and the fact that these guys in the squad aren’t really fleshed out beyond being extras.
In fact, if the director and writers bothered to flesh out the scene right after the military obstacle course bits, we could have had some escalating conflicts and payoffs leading up to the final part of the film. But nope: everything in the film related to PASKAL has to be a drive-by showing off how hardworking the PASKAL army is and how savvy they are. Totally not an insecure film at all, no sirree.
In all seriousness, there is nothing wrong in showing military might as long as you have a solid and engaging narrative to back it up. PASKAL can’t decide whether it’s a straight-up serious take on the military/Special Ops life (like Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty) or a dramatized action film from years past (Black Hawk Down, Commando, etc.). I’ll confess that the shift in tone was gradual, but it then creates a schizophrenic film that should have gone one way or the other.
I will say this though: the last half-an-hour is an entertaining riot for the wrong reasons. The film switches to its action film stances and tropes, and it doesn’t disappoint in its delivery and its unintentional comedic panache. What, were you expecting to take this whole show seriously? It’s hard to root for our heroes and victims we barely know much about apart from them serving the story’s roles.
The cherry on top of this indecisive sundae? The bit at the end where the aforementioned doubters hail PASKAL like it’s the second coming. Everything military about PASKAL makes Michael Bay’s metaphorical handjob for America’s Army look as subtle as Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest.
Is PASKAL an abomination in film-making? Of course not, but it could have been so much more if it could just stick to a singular vision and tone. If it could just tone down its militaristic circle-jerking and SOP-whoring while portraying the soldiers as humans instead of stock & efficient killing machines, we’d be cheering for the story instead of shrugging it.
As it stands, we end up with an incohesive but well-meaning film that at least entertained me in some shape or form. It’s neither a Platoon nor Saving Private Ryan. But at least it isn’t Pearl Harbor.