I’ve been very vocal about my disappointment with Philippine mainstream cinema (detailed here). And, for the most part, the criticism I’ve leveled against large film outfits still applies. The majority of mainstream local films being produced are pointless escapist drivel, and if you’re looking for quality, it’s best to look at independent films.
Then a movie comes along, produced by a large film outfit (Star Cinema), that makes me shut my mouth and ignites my hope that mainstream cinema is not beyond resuscitation. Which makes me think that, perhaps, all is not lost, and that we can have a new Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.
That movie is Erik Matti’s On The Job.
On the surface, On The Job is an action thriller, with cops, killers, corrupt politician masterminds, and enough deaths to thrill most adrenaline junkies. But to describe it as only an action thriller is to do it a disservice, because it is many other things.
Among the many hats it wears (movie critics are quick to point out that it is also a social and political commentary), what impressed me the most was how it handled relationships between fully-fleshed out characters that were believable, and mind-numbingly frustrating in their believability.
The movie starts out with Tatang Maghari (Joel Torre) and the ironically naive Daniel Benitez (Gerald Anderson), a killer-for-hire and his back-up/mentee, carrying out an assassination. The pair is responsible for a series of murders masterminded by the smug, greasy, evil Gen. Pacheco (Leo Martinez).
NBI Investigator Francis Coronel, Jr. (Piolo Pascual) and Sgt. Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez) investigate these series of murders, and they realize that the crimes lead to the highest echelons of power.
On The Job is an exercise in dualities (a conceit of the film), with the four main characters grouped in pairs, represented by both a mentor and a mentee, facing against each other as representatives of law and crime in the dark, gritty world of Manila’s criminal underbelly.
The conceit is further highlighted by Coronel’s moral dilemma. He is caught between two realities: the dark, exclusive, formidable and corrupt one he got into by virtue of his marriage to the daughter (Shaina Magdayao) of the power-hungry Congressman Manrique (Michael de Mesa); and the small, idealistic, and practically powerless world of Acosta.
(It is to Coronel’s misfortune that his tragic flaw is his sense of justice, and that his personal ideology hews more closely to Acosta than Manrique. It is also his redemption.)
The dualities are further expounded and highlighted by the myriad relationships detailed in the movie, and it asks the right questions about them: what is the nature of family? Of love? Of friendship? Of a job? This film is a proverbial rabbit hole, and you can watch it again and again, and not lack for anything new to learn.
The (ab)use of dual realities, both internal and external, works well within the context of the movie because, to its benefit, it understood that there is a line between good and evil which we shouldn’t cross, except that line is not so much a line as a gray, foggy area no one can seem to find. All that can guide us is our intention, and the hope that we can distinguish what is wrong from what is right.
This point is all the more poignant because that is the inescapable reality we have as Filipinos and as human beings, and our tragedy.
On The Job is an excellent and intelligent action thriller that does not rely on cheap visceral thrills to get the audience entertained. Watch it, watch it, watch it.
P.S. All the actors in this movie were topnotch, and deserve whatever accolade they can (will) get. I was particularly surprised at Gerald Anderson’s ability though. He managed to combine both naivete and teenage ruthlessness in his development of Benitez, and ably proves that he is more than just a pretty face.