ON THE JOB (2013) is an earlier movie by Erik Matti, director of BUYBUST, that Filipino action movie I was so impressed by a few months ago. This one is not about martial arts at all, but it shares similar themes of intractable conflict and hopeless corruption in the system. It’s a crime epic about corrupt police taking certain inmates in and out of prison to perform contract killings.
And it primarily takes the P.O.V. of the assassins. We see Mario (Joel Torre, THE BOURNE LEGACY) and his younger, taller, handsomer, dumber protegee Daniel (Gerald Anderson) weaving through a crowded market, shooting a guy, and fleeing. Then Mario goes home to see his wife (Angel Aquino) and law student daughter (Empress Schuck?). He’s like a husband/dad who’s in the military, or a touring musician or something. It’s a treat for him to be home and they wish he would come home more, but they understand. Though it’s ambiguous at first how much they understand.
Daniel goes to see his mom, but decides to only watch from afar as he calls, continuing his lie that he’s working in Abu Dhabi or somewhere.
And then they go back to their home, the prison. This is not like an American prison with cells, it’s more like CARANDIRU, a Brazilian movie I saw a long time ago but apparently didn’t review, where it’s sort of an enclosed community where prisoners can go where they want and wear what they want and everything but are separated from the larger society. Daniel struts around wearing expensive sneakers and seems to know everybody, but that also raises the ire of a giant guy who steals his good food. The Deebo of this place.
There are also some cops we follow, just-promoted detectives Coronel (Piolo Pascual) and Bernabe (Rayver Cruz) trying to solve the opening murder. Coronel is about to marry the daughter of Congressman Manrique (Michael de Mesa), who sees potential in him and is always trying to use his connections to push him into positions of power he’s not really looking for. I love the scene where the older, beaten-down-by-the-system cop Acosta (Joey Marquez) has to hand his files over to them. There’s this visible generational difference – they’re not just younger but bigger, into weightlifting, trying to be hot shots – and he makes no bones about his assumption that they’re corrupt assholes taking over as part of a cover up. They have a very authentic response, not getting defensive at all, just smiling at each other like “Can you believe this guy?” Not arguing, just taking the hits. And we don’t know if it’s because he’s right about them or because they just don’t get it yet. Like AMERICAN GANGSTER their investigation is a separate, related story that will eventually collide with the other one.
An unusual problem facing Mario: he’s up for parole. He tries to sell it to his boss Thelma (Vivian Velez) as a positive – he’ll be available for more jobs. No more hassle sneaking him in and out. But of course they need him to have incarceration as an alibi. So now he has to start training Daniel as his replacement, and he bluntly tells him that he’s not ready. So this is a story about young people trying to establish themselves and old people trying to pass the torch and all of them see themselves as basically well-meaning people, but they’re part of this clearly evil system that horrendously blurs the lines of legality.
Our two convict hitmen are the most captivating characters. Their whole situation is fascinating. It’s such a weird life, being in some senses a V.I.P. being protected by the government, given money and special privileges and allowed (required) to break the law, but also having to be a literal prisoner most of the time. And there are all kinds of layers to their relationship as co-workers, father and son figures and possible rivals. Mario is kind of a regular dude with a bit of a belly, likes to lay around in sweats being lazy when he gets to go home. Daniel is more vain (and is played by an actor who got his big break appearing on Pinoy Big Brother: Teen Edition).
There’s that crime movie tension where you’re following the killers’ perspective so you’re nervous for them. No, it’s not an action movie, but there are tense sequences of stalking, killing, getting in shootouts, getting chased. At the same time you root for Coronel, hoping he has what it takes to figure out what’s going on and stand up to expectations to cover it up. As in BUYBUST, it seems like such a longshot for a good person to make it through this gauntlet unscathed or uncompromised.
Though Matti had been consistently directing movies since 1999, it took him some years to get this one off the ground. There’s some implication that it was too violent or political for the studios, but also the budget was big for the Philippines – they had to build a prison set and stock it with 200 extras). Matti was so set on making it he filmed Torre pitching it and screened that with a short film he was touring film festivals with.
This has been promoted as inspired by real events, which was a shocking idea to me. But after reading about it I wonder if that might be a tall tale. Matti apparently got the idea from a chauffeur who told him he was in prison and they would let him out temporarily to do contract killings. But I’m not sure any details or proof have been uncovered.
That’s okay. ON THE JOB is a really compelling crime saga full of complex characters and situations, with a setting and topic I’ve never seen before. Like BUYBUST it manages to funnel potent political anger into effective genre entertainment. I’m excited that Matti has an ON THE JOB 2 on the way, even though I can’t picture what it will be about.