Plunging the viewer headlong into the sweat and blood, cynicism and corruption of Metro Manila’s mean streets, “On the Job” is a gritty, convoluted but steadily engrossing crime thriller from Filipino genre maven Erik Matti. Although this fast-paced actioner takes a while to sort out its parallel plotlines, extending from an unusually porous prison system to the highest political offices, it ultimately fires on all cylinders as a tense, well-acted B-movie whose strong local flavor is unlikely to survive the inevitable offshore remake. Well Go USA Entertainment snapped up North American rights at Cannes, where the pic’s Directors’ Fortnight berth afforded Matti his broadest international exposure yet.
The brutal mob hit that opens the film takes place in broad daylight, in a crowded square in Quezon City, where middle-aged assassin Tatang (Joel Torre) initiates young thug Daniel (Filipino-American actor Gerald Anderson) into the ruthlessness of their particular trade. Surprisingly, it turns out Tatang and Daniel are both jailbirds, secretly allowed out of prison from time to time to carry out their lethal assignments — an ingenious arrangement that makes for one hell of a high-concept hook, as well as a chillingly matter-of-fact commentary on how endless cycles of violence, though carried out by gangsters on the ground, are actually perpetuated by those in power.
Exactly who’s responsible for these killings is a matter for investigation by upright Sgt. Acosta (Joey Marquez) and his rising-star protege, Francis (Piolo Pascual). Yet Francis finds himself in a potentially compromising position as he realizes just how rotten the system is, ensnaring even his high-ranking politico father-in-law (Michael de Mesa). The manner in which the screenplay (by Michiko Yamamoto and Matti) layers and juggles these dual threads seems almost willfully perplexing at first, but the temporary confusion is no impediment to audience interest, thanks to the film’s compellingly grimy ambience and fully lived-in performances. Perhaps the most fascinating backdrop here is the prison from which Tatang and Daniel plot their next moves, less a traditional cell block than a dense, teeming, self-contained jungle.
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By the time the stories converge, in a hospital shootout that impressively recalls “The Godfather,” “On the Job” has the viewer confidently in its grip. The jittery action-movie syntax — from Francis Ricardo Buhay III’s handheld, neon-smeared lensing and Jay Halili’s whiplash editing to Erwin Romulo’s kicky musical selections — feels like a natural extension of this chaotic environment. The atmosphere proves as engrossing as the narrative; the violence erupts with grotesque, alarming frequency as the film wends its way toward an ending even more fatalistic than anticipated.
First among equals in the cast is the veteran Torre, taking a sledgehammer to his good-guy persona with a superbly menacing but very human performance as a killer whose world-weariness hasn’t kept him from being frighteningly good at his job. The chilling bond between Tatang and Daniel provides the film’s most substantial emotional dynamic. Anderson fully conveys the murderous rush Daniel feels as he becomes a pro hit man, a descent that stands in compelling contrast to Francis’ crisis of conscience as he gradually wills himself to do the right thing.