(as in a bust during a buy)
Every so often in the world of action movies something or someone comes along that throws down the gauntlet and inspires others around the world to try to match it or top it. THE MATRIX, TAKEN and JOHN WICK are three that might qualify based on imitation alone. I think ONG BAK really started something with its insane stunts and flying knees and elbows originating from a country not previously known for movies. More recently THE RAID ignited an Indonesian action film scene and inspired people in other parts of the world to push the envelope in their own ways.
I’m not just talking about copycats. They might even become classics in their own right. Case in point: the amazing 2018 Philippine drug raid epic BUYBUST, which would’ve definitely made my best of the year write-up if I’d seen it in time. It’s kind of like THE RAID meets ELITE SQUAD. A highly trained team of drug enforcement agents go into a favela-like part of town tailing an informant (Alex Calleja) who is wearing a wire for a transaction with the vicious druglord Chongki (Levi Ignacio) in an attempt to draw out his boss, the elusive Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). It turns out to be a setup, the drug gang guns down most of the team and the surviving agents have a long, grueling night battling their way through endless attackers in a labyrinth of narrow, crowded passages and corrugated roofing while trying to figure out who betrayed them and where to find Biggie.
It starts in a boot camp with a team of macho motherfuckers running through a course shooting targets and getting lectured about their mistakes. They’re very well cast to be tough looking but visually distinctive from each other. Our point-of-view character is Manigan (Filipino-Australian TV host and movie star Anne Curtis), who doesn’t trust the judgment of her superiors because of a recent disastrous mission. The other most memorable team member is Yatco (Brandon Vera, current Heavyweight Champion of the Singapore-based MMA promotion ONE), a tattooed giant who believes he’s invincible and is very good to have on your side, especially when your undercover cop thriller pretty much turns into a zombie movie.
The Blu-Ray includes a Comic-Con panel with director Erik Matti (ON THE JOB), and he confirms that the distributors were looking for something like THE RAID (I believe he also mentions THE VILLAINESS), but he says he worked hard to make it not really be that similar. The main parallels are
1) a squad of cops having to fight their way through an army of gangsters and locals, and
2) that it’s a grueling onslaught of nearly non-stop violence. But the contained location is much bigger and more varied, the story is a little more complex, with a social statement embedded in it, and the action style stands on its own. It starts with lots of machine gun spray, but the bullets run out and out come the fists and knives and bats and things. Matti notes that Philippine martial arts don’t use flying kicks, and indeed the lack of acrobatics and elegance make for a uniquely hard hitting style of fighting, with flesh-slapping sound effects and grappling moves giving it kind of a street fight feel.
That said, there is also a scene where Yatco lifts a motorcycle above his head and drops it on somebody, a move that Vera suggested on set (the script had him using a brick). So realism is not a steadfast rule.
The look of the movie is stunning, a beautiful sort of messy. The town is so ragged and dirty and there are flooded areas with plastic bags and garbage floating around, but also you see all these greens, blues and reds, and yellow light reflecting on wet skin. (Director of photography: Neil Bion.) It’s pouring down rain for long sections of the movie, so the people are usually soaked. There’s a very effective score by Malek Lopez and Erwin Romulo, but it knows when to drift off and let through the eerie sounds of rain, walkie talkies and muffled TVs as they sneak through the corridors. Walls and roofs often have cracks and they can see into the living quarters of people who may try to kill them or may just be pissed about the commotion because they’re trying to sleep.
The production value is ridiculous. The village seems way too big to be a set, I honestly assumed it was a real place until I read that they built all 8,000 square meters of it. That explains how they could pull off these incredibly complex fights with dozens of combatants, at one point in a three minute for-real single take (I mean, it took them 57 takes, but they only used one) where Manigan fights people on the ground, climbing up onto a roof, across a bunch of structures and back to the ground, hitting people that keep jumping out at her from all directions like very advanced whack-a-moles. They had a year of pre-production that included combat training and previsualizing the fight scenes. The listicle I linked to also calculates “over 1,278 extras” (I guess that means 1,279?), 928 liters of fake blood, “over 15,231 bullets” and “251,226 grams of gunpowder for 23,057 explosives.”
And those numbers aren’t surprising because I really think this must be the biggest body count I’ve seen in an action movie that’s not about a military conflict. But I suppose in a way it is. I sensed a little bit of Paul Verhoeven in the way it pushes you to cheer on preposterous levels of brutality from heroic-seeming agents in Duterte’s drug war. It gets uncomfortable very early because the team are creeping through to stake the place out, and every time a local notices them they grab them in order to shut them up. So they end up dragging along a train of prisoners, including a little girl!
There’s a big turning point where #2 villain Chongki is yelling for the agents to come out and surrender, and he’s annoyed by a random old guy’s cell phone going off. So he takes the guy hostage, threatening to shoot him in the head if the agents don’t come out. They don’t, and he does, apologizing to the man before he executes him, as if it’s completely out of his hands. As he walks away he tells the dead guy’s friend Solomon (Ricky Pascua) “Sorry for your loss.”
Solomon, who has just lost another family member he hasn’t buried yet, is fed up with the people being in the crossfire. So Solomon riles the crowd up and they go after the cops, as if accepting Chongki’s premise that he has no control over his actions. So Manigan and friends are completely under siege, attacked from everywhere by men, women and children. And though they hesitate a little at first it doesn’t take them long to start fighting back, not pulling their punches. Yatco is getting stabbed by this lady and he’s so much bigger than her, but she’s tenacious, she keeps coming at him until he finds a pair of shears and lunges at her and stops with them right at her neck.
Of course this is that moment where either he’s proven that he could’ve killed her and deserves her trust for having stopped, or he almost lost control and caught himself just in time. And they both take a breath and slowly back away from each other so they can end this without a tragedy.
At least I thought that would happen. Instead he calls her an “annoying bitch” and clips her damn head off! And this is not the bad cop. This is the gentle giant, the teddy bear. Most of the time he’s a sweetheart.
Same with Manigan. Maybe moreso. She does stop herself after picking up a little girl by the neck. And she’s definitely the primary hero of the movie. She’s the observant one who figures things out. She puts together that (some SPOILERS this paragraph) the higher-up who kind of looks like a Filipino Montel Williams set them up. He denies it, but she makes a good case for it, convinces everybody else, and they put him in cuffs. But it’s early enough in the movie that it feels like there must be more to it, a twist where we find out he really isn’t the traitor, it was actuall– well, never mind, she decides to just shoot him in the head. Shit.
Another great moment in amorality: a loose cable sends electricity through a flooded alley, seemingly electrocuting everyone touching the water. Yatco is laying there dead, but thankfully Manigan is able to revive him – and then they step over the pile of bodies to leave without even glancing at them for signs of life. Like it doesn’t even occur to them.
Manigan is gonna go through hell and on the way back do a couple figure eights through hell and then stay in hell for a while and then go back again just to get to this fuckin asshole Biggie who she (spoiler) meets in a messy living room wearing a tank top and shorts under a bathrobe with Birkenstocks and he makes one of those villain speeches where he delights in revealing the hero’s naivete about what kind of people and system she’s really working for and the shittiest part is that he’s telling her the truth.
A fact about me: I will always contemplate the contradictions of a life spent believing in peace and love while devouring violent movies. And I sometimes wonder while watching movies about cops or war if I’m giving in to the temptation of the glamour of violence, letting it infect my views of right and wrong, making me believe certain things are okay because they’re cool. Not that it always matters, but it’s not always easy to be sure what a movie’s saying, especially when it comes from a culture I have little understanding of. I’ve heard of Duterte massacring people allegedly to stop the drug trade, something I find abhorrent, so I had to wonder sometimes “oh jesus, am I enjoying a story about how awesome they are for killing lots of drug dealers?” Luckily it turns out I was not enjoying a glorification, but a nightmare portrait of an unending circle of bloodshed. The agents mean well but even before they learn of the corruption bred by this authoritarianism they should figure out that this war is not working. If you have to fight through a whole village of bystanders to get to the bad guys, I’m pretty sure it’s time to rethink your fight from the ground up.
There’s a final shot that’s one for the record books. Nothing like a thrilling action romp that’s also a powerful statement. It’s not an action movie with a lesson at the end. The action is the lesson.
Thank you, BUYBUST. Keep bustin.
p.s. This one is on Netflix, at least in the U.S. Check it out.
p.p.s. Thank you to my friend Kristofe who was so sure I’d love this like he did that he bought me a copy
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.