Film Review: BuyBust

A declaration of war against the "war on drugs.”
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Among the recent batch of Philippine movies about the Southeast Asian country's so-called war on drugs, BuyBust is a rare beast: It actually invites the viewer to root for cops who shoot, stab, pummel and behead people in a poverty-stricken shantytown. But director Erik Matti is no cheerleader for populist president Rodrigo Duterte and his advocacy of extrajudicial violence. The veteran Philippine genre-meister's ultraviolent action blockbuster goes beyond easy moral binaries to highlight how Duterte's warped worldview has made monsters out of everyone from the police to the peddlers to the ordinary people in between, all of them doing the bloody bidding of a corrupt political class.

BuyBust is another strong Philippine entry seeking to debunk a strongman's promises of retaining social order through violence, which actually breeds irreversible moral corruption, casting every social class asunder. Cranking the mayhem up a few notches from his 2013 hit-man movie On the Job, Matti takes extreme measures to depict the real-life extremities in Philippine society. Bombastic in some parts and derivative in others, BuyBust plays a significant part in the development of a socially charged genre cinema in the Philippines, while adding to the debate about the country's social realities. Revolving around an elite squad's attempt to escape from a slum after a botched operation, BuyBust boasts a body count that's so ever-spiraling it could make Quentin Tarantino quiver, and enough bone-crunching brawls to outstrip those of the no-holds-barred Indonesian actioner The Raid. These visceral representations of death and destruction aside, Matti's stylistic and thematic frame of reference seems to be George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, as his protagonists battle with crazed, zombie-like mobs while they try to navigate their way to ultimate survival.

Here, nobody gets out of the mess alive with their moral compass untarnished. Matti is probably making a point by depicting the masses as a loony army, given the way he described those who voted for Duterte as "motherf—s" on Twitter last year. Taking no prisoners in the film's sweeping critique of the social malaise eating at his country, he has intensified his crusade against the Philippines' slide toward mob rule, a scenario he brought to the screen in his more allegorical Honor Thy Father (2015) and Seclusion (2016). Following its world premiere as the closing film of the New York Asian Film Festival, BuyBust is bound to raise a ruckus in the Philippines.

It’s likely to captivate audiences on its home turf more than on foreign shores, however, where it will probably be marketed as a niche title for aficionados of hard-knuckled action-thrillers—among its stars, after all, is the U.S.-born mixed-martial-arts fighter Brandon Vera. Philippine audiences will be drawn by the transformation of matinee idol Anne Curtis into a brutal killing machine. Casting aside her small-screen persona as rom-com sweetheart and daytime TV host, Curtis plays Manigan, an embittered sharpshooter struggling to accommodate herself to a new narco-busting team after witnessing the annihilation of her old squad.

Barely does Manigan have time to reconcile with her new supervising officer (Victor Neri) than she's plunged into action again, as the team is assigned to sneak into a squatters' area for a "buy bust"—that is, to wait for undercover agents to lure a drug dealer into a bogus deal and then move in when money changes hands. Unsurprisingly, the plan goes awry, and Manigan and her team find themselves trapped within the labyrinth of rickety shacks and crooked alleys, hunted down by both vile narco gangs and deranged slum dwellers who blame the police for their impoverished, oppressed existence.

BuyBust charts Manigan's very long night, as she and fellow agent Rico (Vera) witness the demise of their colleagues and fight for their own survival with whatever comes to hand: shotguns, pistols, knives and gigantic bush trimmers. Neil Derrick Bion's camerawork along with Michael Español and Roma Regala's production design amplify the fights choreographed by Sonny Sison. But Matti's mise-en-scène is also impressive, as he plays with long takes and the witty use of music (baroque here, spaghetti western Muzak there). Or the lack of it, which helps to highlight the actors' grunts as fists meet flesh.

And Curtis does a lot of grunting as she literally punches well above her weight as a never-say-die warrior, driven by her instinct of survival but also a desire to locate the mole who undermined her previous and her current squads. To the credit of Matti and his co-screenwriter, Anton Santamaria, Manigan isn't doing all this to avenge a dead lover or save a son in peril; she’s in it because it's her job, which is a progressive approach to female character motivations.

Manigan's hard-boiled demeanor also serves to underline the noir-like circumstances she's in. As the night draws to a close, she realizes how "every bust is a staged kidnapping" and every casualty is part of a smokescreen designed to distract people from noticing the crooked nature of the system in general.--The Hollywood Reporter