“BuyBust” is a superbly executed action film about drug squad members fighting for their lives in a maze-like Manila slum that resembles nothing less than hell on earth. Director and co-writer Erik Matti (“On the Job,” 2013) has delivered an explosive exercise in kinetic cinema that also offers potent commentary on the devastating social consequences of the Philippine government’s war on drugs. Following its world premiere at New York Asian Film Festival, “BuyBust” will become a must-see item for genre fans. It looks certain to spark controversy and attract large audiences when it releases locally Aug. 1, and should enjoy a successful run in selected North American cities from Aug. 10.
“BuyBust” barely digs into the background of any characters and doesn’t need to. All we need to know is that Drug Enforcement Agency recruit Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) is the sole survivor of a team that was wiped out in a disastrous operation. She’s also smarter than superiors including squad leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri) and senior narco detectives Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) and Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino).
After being roughed-up by Dela Cruz and Alvarez, drug gang member Teban (Alex Calleja) agrees to help the squad capture big boss Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). When Chen fails to show in the designated public place Teban’s told to meet him in Gracia Ni Maria, a huge and densely populated slum.
Bullets, knives, fists, and anything else that can be used as a weapon start flying from the moment Biggie’s chief henchman Chongki (Levi Ignacio) suspects something’s wrong. Beneath thunder and torrential rain, most of Nina’s colleagues are slaughtered in some of the most spectacularly choreographed combat sequences in recent memory. Separated from what’s left of their team, Nina and gentle giant comrade Rico (MMA fighter Brandon Vera) are left to find an escape route in a place that becomes even more dangerous when the slum’s residents turn on them.
Up to this point, Matti and co-writer Anton Santamaria have taken a deliberately neutral political stance. The film has been focused stranded cops attempting to stay alive against all odds. As the body count grows to mammoth proportions (the corpse-strewn location looks like something from a zombie apocalypse movie by the end), the screenplay gives voice to those affected by zero-tolerance government policy. For ordinary folk like Solomon (Ricky Pascua), an old man whose friend was shot dead by Chongki because his cell phone alarm rang at the wrong moment, there’s no difference between drug gangs and cops who’ve been sent to kill them. People can expect the same outcome when either comes calling: Dead family members, endless funerals, and a complete loss of faith in institutions that are supposed to protect them.
Without letting up on the furious action that’s preceded it, the film’s final third is littered with sharp and savage observations about how the war on drugs and rampant corruption have pushed the Philippines’ poorest and most disadvantaged social class into a black hole of chaos and utter despair. In this regard “BuyBust” sets itself decisively apart from comparable full-tilt Eastern action spectaculars that have made an international impact, such as Thailand’s “Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior,” Indonesia’s “The Raid” (2011), and Cambodia’s “Jailbreak” (2016).
In a radical departure from her usual rom-com roles, dual Australian-Filipino national Curtis is convincing and charismatic as the determined and amazingly resourceful heroine. Performances from the rest of a huge cast are spot-on, right down to bit parts.
The film’s technical package features stellar work across the board. Cinematographer Neil Derrick Bion pulls off any number of mind-boggling tracking shots in narrow alleys and across rooftops that are filled with fight director Sonny Sison’s brilliantly staged mayhem. Topping things off is a terrific score by Erwin Romulo and Malek Lopez that employs everything from jaw harp to fuzztone guitar and pulse-quickening drumbeats.