On the Job is arguably the most prolific Filipino crime thriller in years, so prolific that it was given a wide international distribution as has shown up on the radar of quite a few film festivals (Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, etc). The Filipino film industry, in recent years, has been mostly dominated by rom-coms, horror movies and LGBT/Queer films but the ambition of On the Job is a step towards bringing Filipino cinema in competition with their action-oriented international peers such as Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and Indonesia. On that level, On the Job succeeds admirably and it is one of the most engrossing action thrillers since the Indonesian martial arts film The Raid. The film is focused on a relatively simple concept: organizations use assassins/hitmen that are hired while serving time in prison. These killers are snuck in and out of jail to carry out their bloody work, and this provides them an almost perfect alibi. Director Erik Matti manages to layer the concept with multiple characters, kinetic editing and atmospheric photography which all serve to create film-noir stylized portrait of Metro Manila.
The film begins with brutal killing in broad daylight, where middle-aged assassin Tatang (Joel Torre) initiates young thug Daniel (Gerald Anderson) into the ruthlessness of their particular trade. These two men have undertaken this job as a means to both reduce and make their prison sentence easier as it is slowly revealed how powerful their employers are. This plays into the film’s chilling and matter-of-fact commentary on how cycles of violence and injustice, though carried out by gangsters on the ground, are actually perpetuated by those with legitimized power. Meanwhile, straight-laced veteran cop Sgt. Acosta (Joey Marquez) begins investigating but finds himself at odds with his rising-star protégé, Francis (Piolo Pascual). Francis finds himself in a conflicting position unable to cope with a corrupt system that surprisingly involves his high-ranking politico father-in-law (Michael de Mesa). The screenplay (by Michiko Yamamoto and Matti) struggles with juggling and layering these story threads and the proceedings seem perplexing at times. The temporary confusion does not impede the film thanks to its compelling ambience and the presence of nuanced and fully lived-in performances. One of the most fascinating pieces in the film is the prison from which Tatang and Daniel plot their next moves, which is portrayed as a complex and dense self-contained jungle.
The many threads of the film finally converge in a hospital shootout that impressively recalls The Godfather and to a lesser extent, John Woo’s Hard Boiled. And that scene is just one of many that showcase impressive prowess. The technical elements of the film are all on par with other well-known Asian Action/Crime Dramas. Francis Ricardo Buhay III’s semi-handheld, neon-smeared lensing, Jay Halili’s free-form editing, and Erwin Romulo’s contemporary musical mix (ranging from traditional film score to popular Filipino Hard Rock selections) all feel like an extension and personification of the chaotic environment the film sets out to portray. It’s getting rarer and rarer for films in general to shoot for this unique level of atmosphere. The use of violence erupts with grotesque and alarming frequency all the while building to a mean and fatalistic (though not quite nihilistic) ending.
On the Job is not an innovative or “original” film by any means. It is however, a solid showcase of craft filmmaking and is an engrossing and focused crime thriller. The story is interesting, the acting is superb, and the technical aspects of the film are quite impressive. If you even have a passing interest in international film or foreign action-dramas, you can do no wrong with this film.