It’s intoxicating right from the very start, when, amid the pagan frenzy of a Catholic fiesta in downtown Manila, Joel Torre blasts the brains out of an unsuspecting Chinese businessman. The ensuing action sequences then take viewers on an exhilarating HD tour of the city’s dingy alleys filled with bullet-proof SUVs streaming by mendicants and grimy vendors.
Erik Matti’s On The Job is at the very minimum a visual feast. It’s a treat in itself seeing Manila captured in all its Third World glory—the LRT chugging along above slums, a rainy date on a sidewalk carinderia, an indoor Jacuzzi in the plush home of a solon. Instead of obscure, up and coming actors, you see the characters portrayed by popular faces in local Tinseltown, which makes the gritty, multi-layered plot more palatable to general audiences.
The movie lets us in on the discomforting but all too real racket of hiring inmates as gunmen to foil any attempt of investigation. Matti says he got the idea ten years ago from one of his drivers, who, being a former inmate, casually recounted how he was discreetly let out of prison every now and then to kill people. This perverted “business” is brokered by corrupt officials on every level of the bureaucracy, with high-ranking military men often at the very top.
Joel Torre and Gerald Anderson play Mario and Daniel, a pair of these inmates-cum-contract killers, who become in demand as the cheeky General Pacheco (Leo Martinez) moves to eliminate previous clients who might rat on him as he guns for the elections.
An idealistic NBI agent, Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual), catches on the rotten dealings as he investigates the murder of the Chinese businessman. With the help of the hard-up yet straight police officer Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez), he chases the killers and those who pull their strings—a group of high-ranking government officials whose gall is matched only by their avarice.
A group which, unfortunately, includes Francis’ father-in-law.
We then see the gaping cracks in our culture, which fatalistically puts the family in the center of everything—a potent force that cowers even the most righteous of us to stomach evil and merely look the other way when it is dealt. This is the central dilemma that hounded many of the characters: Mario as he takes killing jobs in the hope of providing a better life for his family, Francis as he agonizes in his decision to go against his father-in-law, and Acosta as he painstakingly tries to apprehend his drug-dealing son.
A couple of shocking twists towards the end rams at you like a bullet, and by the time the movie wraps up in what seems like an open-ended promise of redemption, you are not very hopeful that Francis’ iPhone, the most solid forensic evidence left at that point, will lead to anything.
We should be pleased that Star Cinema, which has become synonymous to “fluff,” is beginning to take initiatives to co-produce films like this. From the elite casting to the masterful cinematography and scoring, On The Job is miles away from the usual budget indie film, and shows that big-ticket production and sensitive film topics can go well together. Also, unlike the usual indie fare, the film doesn’t revel in the characters’ poverty—Mario, for one, is able to send a daughter to law school, showing a very nuanced description of socioeconomic conditions so often lacking in “poverty porn” indie films.
The film deserves a lot more than its two-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Festival this year. We have often debated if the Filipino mainstream audience is ready for such films, but we have consistently fallen short of walking the talk. Will the movie usher in a new era in mainstream Philippine cinema? It’s tall order for Matti’s film, but it just might be up to the job.