A squad of drug enforcement agents must run the gauntlet in Erik Matti’s violent crime thriller.
“What happened to your old squad wasn’t your fault. And whatever happens tonight will not be your fault. This is your squad now. Focus on the mission. You’ll be the last man later.”
These are some very ominous and not remotely foreshadowing words, from team leader Lacson (Victor Neri) as a squad of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency is gearing up, readying to bust drug lord Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). He’s speaking to rookie officer Nina (Anne Curtis), whose last squad was killed in a similar raid due to corruption within the police. She has a right to be nervous: things aren’t looking good. After their attempt to lure Biggie out, their informant, former dealer Teban (Alex Calleja), leads them into the barangay Gracia ni Maria – a labyrinthine slum comprised entirely of alleyways and gutters.
The team split in two, to better capture Biggie but it is, of course, a ruse. Dealer Chongki (Levi Ignacio), who was to arrange the meeting with Biggie, traps the squad in the barrio, forcing them to fight their way out as wave after wave of bad guys are thrown at them. However, to make matters worse, the people who living with Gracia also fight back, sick of their home being used for countless violent, destructive operations by the police. With civilians and gangsters hunting them, the squad must do what they can to survive, and escape their hellish prison.
BuyBust’s biggest selling point is in the way it depicts its setting and it does so beaituflly. The tight, terrifyingly claustrophobic environment is an excellent way to build up the suspense and keep the tension at maximym for the entire time. Neither we, nor the main characters, know what’s around the corner and thusly we’re never really given a moment’s rest. The barangay is also a wonderfully three-dimensional area, where danger can come from above, or below as well as around you. This results in fights that are dynamic, exciting and never very repeptitive. From growrooms to flooded alleys with loose electric cables, there’s always some improvised weapon or danger somewhere.
Which leads me into the movie’s action, which is very nicely done – in a way that feels real but never clunky or clumsy. There’s definitely a lot of work that has been put into the choreography, but at no point do you get the impression that they’re dancing, like in the best Jackie Chan films. The violence is raw, brutal and never too silly (except one extreme moment with some garden sheers), and sometimes gets uncomfortable when the police are attacked by and have to fight off what is, normally, just a bunch of random innocent bystanders. This added conflict of the community fighting back make for an interesting additional layer. It stops the move from being a simple cops and robbers type affair, and instead gives us something more complex, with definite political overtones.
BuyBust has been described as a commentary on President Duterte’s war on drugs, with the police exerting maximum force against a population who have, seemingly out of nowhere, turned into feral beasts who have to be tamed through violence. But where Matti brings it around is in showing that the violence and corruption only feeds into it more, and by giving us main characters who are fairly likeable and never once look like they’re enjoying it. These are not shown as heroic acts, just desperate moves in order to survive.
All in all, this is a very dark film. It does throw in some moments of black humour such as when we get to see the hulking, gigantic form of officer Yatco (Brandon Vera in my favourite role in the film) throw people easily half his height around. And variety is what saves the film from being too one-note. The locations are incredible and varied allowing for three dimensional gunfights on rooftops, and bottle-necked battles. Every set is another colour, as well, from vibrant greens to neon pinks. This could have been a drab, grey affair (and sometimes is), but by giving us big set pieces within these busy environments, the film never feels rote or repetitive.
Overall, BuyBust is a great example of action-thriller. It’s filled with fantastic battle sequences set in tight, uncomfortable scenes, often reminding me of the Arkham series of Batman video games. Throw in a likeable cast (Anne Curtis does a wonderful job here), and a touch of satire (the news reporting thirteen corpses as the camera pans over the result of the massacre is a chilling and wonderful piece of visual irony) and you get a movie that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but will definitely satisfy those who have come out of The Raid and John Wick looking for something just as fresh and fun.
Verdict: Loaded with tense moments and excellent action, if BuyBust is anything to go by, the Philippines have a very promising cinematic future ahead.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Body count: All of Manila?
Playing dead: Always a good trick
Kids with knives: What a little shit
Badly-timed cellphones: 1
Director: Erik Matti
Writer: Anton Santamaria, Erik Matti
Anne Curtis – Nina Manigan
Brandon Vera – Rico Yatco
Victor Neri – Bernie Lacson
Arjo Atayde – Biggie Chen
Nonie Buencamino – Detective Alvarez
Lao Rodriguez – Detective Dela Cruz
Alex Calleja – Teban
Levi Ignacio – Chongki
Ricky Pascua – Solomon
Joross Gamboa – Manok