With acclaimed films like "On the Job" (2013) and "Honor Thy Father" (2015), director Erik Matti has already built his name up as a brand of quality filmmaking. When he releases a new film, it is something to look forward to for its excellence in craftsmanship, as well as its incisive social commentary.
His latest work "BuyBust," with its topic centered about the current all-out war on drugs, already promises to deliver on both ends.
Agent Nina Manigad has been taken in by drug enforcement officer Bernie Lacson under his team. They were assigned to join a buy-bust operation to apprehend big-time drug lord Bennie Chen. When the venue of the bust was suddenly moved to the slum area of Gracia de Maria, Manigad, freshly scarred from a recent deadly botched operation, immediately knew something fishy was up. But getting her team out alive from that convoluted maze-like enclosure was not going to be easy.
This was an all-out action film, but it played like a typical horror movie. A trapped group of six friends gets picked off one by one by a vicious killing horde, until only the strongest (or luckiest) ones remain. The massacre of the endless stream of attackers were done so quickly and brutally, such that those nameless men and women lost all sense of their humanity.
These were human beings, but here they all looked like soulless zombies the way they were being demolished left and right by Manigad and company. Heaps of corpses are left in the wake of the war, but more of them addicts just keep on coming in, unmindful of certain death -- a sharp chilling metaphor for the seemingly fruitless drug war being waged in reality.
The cinematography by Neil Derrick Bion was very vibrant, lit imaginatively from various angles and lamps. This was impressive as the events of this film all happened within one overnight operation. There were several single-take tracking scenes involving what seemed to be hundreds of extras swarming and attacking the leads in either dead-end alleys or rooftops in the pouring rain, which were simply amazing to watch. One of these single-take scenes can surely take multiple days of repeated trials to capture perfectly.
The editing of the visuals (by Jay Halili) and the sound, was all very exciting and on point. (It was unfortunate that the muffled speaker of the theater denied us a full wall of crackling sound on the night I watched.) The eclectic musical score by Erwin Romulo and Malek Lopez was a perfect complement to the movement of images on the screen, either giving the fight scenes raucous crazy energy or ironic subdued contrast.
The gunfights and shootouts were explosive, ranging from revolvers to automatic weapons. There were also homemade bombs in the mix to cause those loud fiery infernos that heat up the action even more. The hand-to-hand combat was raw, gritty and rough, aided with knives or whatever household items they can get their hands on. There were no long, elegantly choreographed martial arts here (unlike how it was in "The Raid," the 2011 Indonesian film to which "BuyBust" will inevitably be compared).
Fresh from the box-office success of "Sid and Aya," Anne Curtis surprises this time with an against-type performance as PDEA agent Manigad. Her pretty face may distract your attention at first, but Curtis really went all out with her committed transformation into an action star here, convincing us not only with her fighting skills, but also her streetwise wits. Her best scene was saved until the very end -- a harrowing scene that packed a very strong final punch, as well as a potent message.
The scenes with the most audience impact in terms of spontaneous cheers and applause belonged to MMA champion Brandon Vera. With his imposing height and heft, it was fun to see Vera battling all sorts of attackers of different shapes and sizes. His wrestling moves, flips and throws were all so breathtaking to witness. Secured by his makeshift bottle-cap amulet, his character Rico Yatco was a never-say-die type of guy, and nothing (from bullets to darts to electric current) seemed to faze him at all. You'll never look at garden shears or motorcycles the same way again after you see what Vera does with them here.
Playing the other members of the team were Victor Neri (amazingly, a PDEA explosives expert in real life), Sheenly Gener, Mara Lopez, Tarek el Tayech and AJ Muhlach. Playing the cops of dubious nature were Nonie Buencamino and Lao Rodriguez. Playing the drug pushers were the hilarious Alex Calleja (as the police asset Teban), Joross Gamboa (as insane addict Manok), Levi Ignacio (as the ruthless lieutenant Chungki) and Arjo Atayde (as big boss Bennie Chen). Atayde's effective acting skills were very apparent despite his short 10-minute screen time and the ratty bathrobe costume and uglifying make-up he had on.
Because of the crooked cops angle, we get a whiff of "On the Job" right off the bat. However, as the film progressed, we see a different Erik Matti at work. It was a Matti possessed by the spirit of films like "Kill Bill," "Machete," "World War Z" or "Train to Busan" for their outrageous bloodbaths and escalating body counts. This film is very badass, very hardcore, yet so engrossing and entertaining. It was truly an exhilarating adrenaline-infused big screen experience, definitely not for the faint of heart. 9/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."