Don’t come to “Alpha, The Right to Kill,” the latest rough-hewn slab of social realism from Filipino auteur Brillante Ma Mendoza, in search of revelations, either in form or content. A rumbling, street-pounding drug-war thriller, it’s far from the first film to paint cops and dealers on this beat as equally bent; a Mendoza joint that drags viewers brusquely through the ragged poverty and institutional corruption of modern Manila is hardly an unfamiliar proposition either. “Alpha” doesn’t profess to be anything new, however: There’s a bone-weary resignation to its worldview that underlines its simple moral point all the more effectively.
That said, this story of a SWAT officer and a punkish informant’s fateful outside-the-law collaboration is Mendoza’s most propulsive and engrossing variation on his favored themes in some time. It’s also his most straight-up genre exercise to date — somewhat reminiscent of José Padilha’s “Elite Squad” films in its hit-the-ground-running technique, albeit with a bit more grime on the lens. Less punishingly extreme than Mendoza’s 2009 provocation “Kinatay,” if not as commercially inclined as his Isabelle Huppert starrer “Captive,” “Alpha” should have an easier time than the director’s last few features in securing multi-platform arthouse distribution following its San Sebastián competition premiere. And while it’s surprising to see Mendoza unveiling a film outside his usual Cannes-Venice-Berlin wheelhouse, further festival play will be extensive.
In a film light on direct speechifying, “Alpha” makes its political agenda most bluntly obvious at the very beginning and end, bookending proceedings with recent archive footage of a police honors presentation and accompanying celebratory parade in the streets of Manila. As flags are waved and the national anthem plays, you needn’t be a student of the director’s work to know we’re not about to join in the cheers. Sure enough, we cut from that pomp and ceremony to the daily workings of a drug operation in the city’s slums, where pockets of crack cocaine are secreted in market-bound papayas; the dealer is apprehended by wholesome-looking cop Espino (Allen Dizon), operating on a tip-off from his young, mohawk-coiffed nark Elijah (Elijah Filamor).
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That bust is small potatoes compared to what Espino, with Elijah’s assistance, orchestrates next: a violent nighttime SWAT raid on the headquarters of local drug lord Abel (Baron Geisler) that leaves several people dead. Shot in digitally fluid, queasy-making fashion as the camera barrels down graffiti-webbed corridors and across haphazard rooftops, it’s an early centerpiece sequence that showcases some of Mendoza’s most hard-driving filmmaking smarts; nothing in “Alpha” comes close to topping its impact, though as the rest of the film traces the raid’s grim, steadily worsening fallout, that’s more or less by design.
For what the raid makes quite clear is that Espino — who maintains quite the virtuous facade with his neatly pressed polo shirts and regular attendance of PTA meetings at his daughters’ school — is no upstanding citizen. Not only does he break protocol with his trigger-happy attack style, but he pilfers a large bag of loot from Abel’s den, before tasking Elijah with hiding it, cashing it in and splitting the money between them. Hard-up Elijah is the father of a young girl himself, and Troy Espiritu’s straightforward, straight-talking script makes much of the parallels between two lawbreaking family men at opposite ends of the society ladder. In doing so, the film places its sympathies squarely with Elijah, played with spiky-soft charisma by relative newcomer Filamor: His misdeeds, after all, are driven entirely by hand-to-mouth need, while Espino’s corruption is presented as merely one example of widespread abusive greed in the country’s most powerful echelons.
As Espino and Elijah’s pact inevitably unravels, the lack of subtlety or ambiguity in their joint plight leaves “Alpha” little room to surprise us narratively. What keeps it involving is the feverish level of texture and detail in its urban geography, as Joshua A. Reyles’s roving, sweat-spattered camera probes murky mazes of trash-stacked back alleys, streets riddled with human and authoritarian obstacles, and police stations that buzz with an excess of procedural activity. Meanwhile, the sound design works in ear-piercing tandem with the grandly symphonic industrial drone of Diwa de Leon’s score — if it sounds inspired by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work on “Sicario,” who could blame him — to differentiate the film’s various states of disarray and claustrophobia. In “Alpha, The Right to Kill,” even privilege comes under a thick layer of muck.