Budding dark tourists will get a real kick out of “Gracia ni Maria”, the neon-lit, labyrinthine S-town at the crest of Tondo, and Erik Matti’s Tenth Circle of Hell, where people are cast as collateral pawns caught in—seemingly—eternal crossfire. It’s also where Matti’s new film, BuyBust, is set. Manslaughter is its only fiesta, a recurring tradition signaled by the assemblage of doped-up hoodlums and the violent clanking of kitchenware—at which point you have about three minutes to escape guaranteed deaths from makeshift weaponry. Molotovs? Check. Beer bottle shivs? Check. Gardening tools? You can bet your head on it! The town’s dank, dreary alleys serve as the sandbox in which Matti’s exhaustively visceral action and unflinchingly pervasive views unfurl.
Of course, for those whose scrawny bodies make the bed of corpses when all is said and done and each bullet unshelled, this isn’t just some game. That point is hard to miss—mainly because the film’s mission is to carry that message across its audience come what may. The film lives in a Why be subtle when you can do this? headspace, one that happily foregoes clinical precision that enlivens Matti’s previous works (On The Job, Honor Thy Father) in order to assert its blistering cynicisms and aggressions in such clarity that every whip of the camera starts to feel like a prey pouncing back on its predator, red-eyed and feral. And that animal-in-berserk kind of chaos often transcends the film’s unmistakable technical flaws, of which there are a few.
The screenplay, co-written by Matti and Anton C. Santamaria, is decidedly sparse. Sparser even than survival action-thrillers like Gareth Evans’ The Raid, a title that will likely be perpetually appended to the film, even though it clearly harkens more closely to the John Carpenter’s gruelling Assault on Precinct 13. In about ten minutes into BuyBust, we’re thrust into a blood-curdling buy-bust PDEA operation targeting a notoriously elusive, high-ticket drug dealer named—aptly—Bigie Chen (cue the Reddit threads theorizing which real-life figure the character is inspired by). The mission doesn’t go smoothly from the onset. Sudden pull-outs from either camps nudge Nani Manigan (Anne Curtis), a rookie cop weathered by the sting operation that killed everyone else in her troop, think that the mission might be compromised and that things can go south—fast.
And go south it does. The entrapment operation, led by idealist do-gooder in blue Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri), quickly devolves into a blood-soaked, kill-or-be-killed standoff between ‘s team and a swarm of remorseless druggies. Caught in their midst are the townspeople themselves, who have just about had it with losing people to a war that doomed them as helpless casualties. What follows is a punishingly tense, animalistic brawl that turns every household item a crucial determinant whether or not you will come out of the fight dead or alive.
Not that we’ll bat an eye for most of Lacson’s officers and their unsightly demise. The film—decideedly—invests little time in giving its characters much depth viewers can latch onto. Only apt, I think, for people who aren’t anything more than cogs in a cruel, recursive wheel of violence, corruption, and injustice, be they sit on the right or the wrong side of the tracks. That’s partly the reason why the most memorable characters are those who produce the most thrills. That’s Cutis’ assertive heroine, who rises to the level of physicality of Rico Yatco (played by Brandon Vera), an impervious tank that comes out of a battle barely scathed and widely grinning.
A key scene unfolds towards the film’s climax—an impressive uninterrupted shot set in the rusted rooftops of the town where Manigan grapples with an entire horde of crazed townsfolk and junkies as DP Neil Bion’s camera glides oh-so-smoothly—that sticks out against the backdrop of roughly handheld shots that build much of the action of the film. That scene alone is worth the admission. The film’s final shot is haunting: a birds’ eye view of the catastrophe unfolded, with a reporter’s voice droning in the background, spitting arbitrary numbers that in no way reflects the real tragedy of the crossfire. That speaks the powerful point about who we are as a nation: when all is said and done, the deaths that our wars incur don’t really count any more than mere statistics.
2018 / Action, Thriller / PH
Direction: Erik Matti
Screenplay: Erik Matti, Anton C. Santamaria
Cast: Anne Curtis, Brandon Vera, Victor Neri, Arjo Atayde, Alex Calleja, Joross Gamboa
An anti-drug enforcement agency stages a massive drug bust in the slums of Manila which quickly derails into a fatal crossfire.