Praybeyt Benjamin is a strange mashup of Mulan, an 80s Pinoy screwball comedy action flick, and of course, Private Benjamin. Right from the start, it suffers from having a lot of different elements being mashed together. But the combination is novel, and it could have turned out interesting if the filmmakers were inclined to do something with the concept. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Praybeyt Benjamin is a mess of a film, with poor production values and lazy writing. If not for the lead talent, the film would be pretty unwatchable.
Benjamin Santos VIII (Vice Ganda) carries a burden with his men. The Benjamins of the Santos clan traditionally grow up to be soldiers, fighting in whatever great conflict is occupying the country. This tradition ended with his father (Jimmy Santos), who followed his dreams to become a scientist. Benjamin has no plans of becoming a soldier, either, but circumstances soon point him in that direction. A terrorist group takes the entire country hostage, forcing the army to enact a draft. Benjamin enlists in order to take his father’s place. He leads a small band of misfits through basic training, using his unique outlook to get ahead.
There’s a lot going on in the plot. The film starts with the history of the Santos clan, and then moves into the tension that grows between Benjamins 6 and 7. The film then jumps right into the terrorist plot, before forgetting it while Benjamin receives basic training. There isn’t a lot of tension, since whatever threats the terrorists made aren’t really addressed the entire time Benjamin is at camp. Instead, the film introduces a whole new group of characters, each one with a particular quirk, and follows them as they fumble through training. There’s no urgency to any of it, and the film runs long as a result.
The film’s humor is similarly all over the place. The best gags are grounded in the relationships of the characters. In one standout scene, Benjamin sees his family for the first time after enlisting. They are separated by glass, their silhouettes matching up as they get closer to each other. He and his parents share a melodramatic moment through the glass, while Benjamin’s sister cuts the tension and opens a nearby door. It isn’t a particularly original gag, but the performances sell it. And it’s at least offers something more than a lazy pop culture reference or a sped up scene. The film is pretty ugly, too, with messy shot continuity and plenty of out of focus shots.
The key to all this is still Vice Ganda, who is undoubtedly one of the strongest comedic talents to emerge in the last few years. There’s a lot of clunky material in all this, but Vice Ganda’s confident delivery is pretty much half the battle. Jimmy Santos is still a formidable comedic force, his facial expressions eliciting laughter even when the jokes aren’t there. There’s not a whole lot to say about the rest of the supporting cast. There are too many people involved in the film, and no one’s given a juicy enough role to really shine.
Praybeyt Benjamin has its moments, but it doesn’t have the focus to really let those moments sing. At an hour and fifty minutes, the film is overstuffed with inside jokes and pop culture references, the story falling by the wayside in the process. By the end, Luis Manzano shows up with a horse, referencing Vice Ganda’s previous cinematic success. Time is wasted on a joke that only really works if you’ve seen the previous film. The filmmakers just can’t let the movie stand on its own merits, and the whole project suffers for it.