Another work of art inspired by the Duterte era, BuyBust is the latest glossy Hollywoodesque movie from the celebrated Erik Matti (the excellent On the Job). The action film, which premiered at the New York Asian Film Festival in July this year, is getting mostly rave reviews—with genre fans drooling at the non-stop carnage in neon-lit Manila, with the pretty Anne Curtis leading the cast in a macho role.
Curtis plays Agent Manigan, the most recent member of an elite narcotics squad (PDEA) headed by newly promoted team leader, Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri). Still reeling from her hairy experience in a botched operation, Manigan has become cynical, paranoid and a bit of a rebel.
PDEA director Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino) tosses an urgent new assignment to Bernie’s team: capture big-time drug kingpin, Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). The squad then uses mid-level drug dealer Teban (Alex Calleja) to lure Biggie Chen out of his hiding place.
The buy-bust operation leads Manigan and her new teammates into a fictional squatter area in Tondo that Matti decided to call Gracia Ni Maria (very Erik Matti). The religiously named slum area, with its dank and narrow alleyways, will become the setting for what would become the most graphic bloodbath in the history of Philippine cinema.
Except that it’s also one of the most boring bloodbaths in cinematic history.
To begin with, as the squad members silently creep their way into the congested maze, turning left, right, left, right, left, right—from time to time snatching innocent passersby to shush them —you are already bored.
You get it, they’re being led into the deepest, thickest parts of Gracia—far away from the main highway, but the monotonous walking sequence is devoid of suspense, or even nervous witty exchange (nope, Teban is not funny). No details to keep you entertained or at the edge of your seat. And without much police tactics, the cops just look like a bunch of gullible amateurs costumed with PDEA vests. How can you root for them?
When the first gunshot rings in the air, chaos erupts. Soon, a bloody war breaks out between the outnumbered PDEA officers and Biggie Chen’s henchmen. But then Gracia Ni Maria residents also jump in—men and women, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, join the slaughterfest, blindingly charging at Manigan and team.
These murderous civilians are the highlight of BuyBust. Each one of them seems to represent Matti; the crowd a metaphor of the filmmaker’s anti-Duterte sentiments, their angry faces turning into one livid Erik Matti, calling to mind his famous tweet: “Sa lahat ng bumoto, p*tang ina nyo! Isa pa: p*tang ina nyo! [To those who voted, curse you. One more time: curse you]!”
As they stab, kick, punch and viciously attack the police R-18 style, the civilians cry out the injustice of the multitudes of dead bodies brought about by the war on drugs, blaming the cops for the rising death toll. You killed my father, brother, cousin, friend, they say, while throwing themselves in the hands of trained police, and in turn, naturally getting themselves killed, further adding to the death toll.
The speedy editing and the shaky cam prevent you from fully enjoying the gore. It’s as if the camera, the editing and the nighttime setting are a ploy to keep some technical flaws in the shadows, such as the too-slow double kick, or perhaps the fake slum area, or the not-so-realistic blood. And as if the tremulous camera in the dark is not enough, the night sky rips apart and torrential rain pours, further shrouding the fight scenes.
Matti is channeling Quentin Tarantino here, accompanying the fight scenes with a mix of upbeat, eclectic score. The difference is that Tarantino knows how to construct tension and suspense, and his violence is crystal clear, while Matti’s brand is just one repetitive, mindless violence courtesy of creative weapons.
And then it’s no longer a crime-action, but a fantasy horror taking place before your eyes (I knew it; the red horror font used in the opening credits is a telltale sign). In true Pinoy horror-movie fashion, characters die one after another from the Tiktik-esque mob of aswangs, with Gracia Ni Maria evolving into an enchanted maze, a labyrinthian nightmare where no one gets out. You feel stuck as well, watching the same kind of violence over and over again, quickly desensitizing you.
And where is the Tondo police? They cannot seem to hear that World War III is happening nearby, and it’s been going on for almost eight hours now. Gracia Ni Maria seems to be protected by some magical, invisible, soundproof dome. Or perhaps, there’s a conspiracy going on. Hmm…
Competent performances here: Joross Gamboa as a hyper baddie is unforgettable even with just a short appearance. Buencamino, Neri and Atayde are impressive. But my favorite is Levi Ignacio’s Chonki, who emits dangerous criminal vibes, as well as MMA champ Brandon Vera, who plays the lovable superstitious giant Agent Yatco. Curtis, in a refreshingly different role, is beautiful even with mud and blood smeared on her. Her fighting moves seemed rehearsed, though.
BuyBust would have been enjoyable if it were more pragmatic than fantastical. If Matti’s aim is a social commentary, then it is lost in this fantasia-gore. If his aim is violent entertainment, then its lost in its exhausting repetitiousness.
In the final scene, when the camera rises to give us an aerial shot of the aftermath of World War Z, slowly revealing mountains and mountains of dead bodies, a stark contradiction to the background news reporting only 13 casualties, it is hilarious. It’s a “harrowing” picture of mass murder mostly committed by Manigan and Yatco — as self-defense.
So if I were to name some of the downsides of Duterte’s War on Drugs, the overrated BuyBust is one of them.
1 out of 5 stars