One of the most delightful things anyone might hear upon learning of a film like Erik Matti’s new crime opera, BuyBust is who will star. I didn’t know who Anne Curtis was until XYZ’s own Todd Brown broke the news at ScreenAnarchy on top of other updates regarding training of the cast, as well as the director’s own subsequent passionate testimonials on Facebook, and I have to say, in wake of its 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this film has done an incredible job selling itself.
The reviews and residual reactions stemming from its festival run and recent release in The Philippines have been mostly positive, that is, apart a few articles I’ve come across that have been critical in nature. It surprised me a little, though it wasn’t necessarily unexpected, varying opinions and so on and so forth. Indeed, BuyBust, a milestone production for a market that has otherwise been stagnant in bringing the action genre to the local mainstream, has a fair number of highs worth pointing out compared to its lows and by the end, the choice is yours to make to rate this one as freshly as others have and may, or not.
Central to the narrative is Curtis’ portrayal of Nina Manigan, one of several officers newly inducted into her new anti-narcotics squad. The mood is festive for nearly all, save for Manigan – her current prospects being possible following the slaughter of her previous team. Needless to say, it has all but affected her willingness to connect with her comrades, much less immediately take orders from commanding offers at first.
The most striking characteristic there is that her trauma hasn’t crippled her ability to perform her immediate duties, but quite the opposite; As the film moves forward, she proves herself to be wiser in her instincts. Her team’s latest mission is to apprehend elusive drug lord, Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde), through their recently-acquired lead suspect, Teban (Alex Calleja), a pusher who flips to save his wife from scruitiny. Manigan’s own caution quietly takes hold upon learning that a key officer involved with her last unit is on hand to steer the operation her new team has been assigned to.
When the op is greenlit to stage a buy-bust arrest targeting Biggie Chen, things turn progressively sour over time as the team eventually moves into one of Manila’s most dangerous slums. Observing their undercover operatives from a far amid the dark of bushes and narrow corridors weighs less than enough for our ill-gotten team who suddenly find themselves exposed and vulnerable to surrounding enemies working under the slum’s own local cartel boss, Chongki (Levi Ignacio).
Bullets, fists and projectile weapons fly as the unit is ambushed from all sides, ensuing a daring attempt to fight their way out while keeping Teban alive, and with Manigan ever close to the truth behind the nature of the mission than she realizes. Worsening matters is the backlash triggered by Chongki when angry residents, including grieving families of those departed due to criminal activity, grab their tools and lynch mob mentality and ante up the odds against Manigan and her comrades.
Preceeding articles have been much ado with the film’s relevance to current law enforcement in The Philippines. I’ve never been there, nor have I bared witness to any of the raids that have occurred while I know what I read from to time to time in conjunction with my own imagination and reasoning. Matti’s vision is one that echoes a grisly reality faced on both sides of the badge – a trait relative to some of the work he’s done, and therefore a pretty commedable and noteworthy attempt to cast a light on important subject matter in the course of constructing one heck of a compelling, entertaining story.
The focus on Manigan is instantly interesting at first, but slightly undone with a backstory that is only implied. What holds it together next to the developing plot is Curtis’ own performance of the role, invoking a nuanced personality stoic in her approach to hierarchy and soldiering. She’s quiet and focused when she needs be, and contemplative and withdrawn when she can be. At times, it may not be enough for the average viewer and so amid the second act, you’re either engaged with her story, or you’re not – if you are, you’ll be greatly pleased with how it all comes full circle by the last gunshot.
Joined by orchestral mix of anarchy embidied in Matti’s choice of scoring, the action itself is a hit or miss as it mostly does away with a lot of the stylish, rhythmic approaches that productions like The Raid and the like have become well known for. Fight director and choreographer Sonny Sison, an adamant advocate for legitimacy in the Filipino stunt and action community, draws up roaring gun battles to inaugurate the violence in all its volumes and numbers, bookended with grounded, brutish and instinctive fight design that makes sure to put our cast’s copious months of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali training and coordination to work.
Legendary Filipino action star Levi Ignacio stands tall among the villainy as Boss Chongki, local shot caller and underling to Biggie Chen in their extensive hierarchy of who’s-who in the expansive echelons of bad guys. Ignacio exercises his authority in the role with proper gravitas, signaling the brutality with a billy club to a man’s head which almost instantly let’s you know just how many nuts this shit’s gonna have in it when the shooting starts.
Mixed martial artist Brandon Vera stands tall as fellow operative Rico Yatco, next to Curtis’ Manigan as they stand back to back for a good portion of the film, featured in sprawling sequences that serve as terrific highlights for action fans. It’s in such scenes that our lead actress invokes immense resilience in her first major action role, performing dangerous fight scenes and stunts involving sharp objects and not only moving fast, but as feral in dramatization as one’s own raw intent to survive.
With Vera, the man is a goddamn tank. He’s an amply sized athlete with great strength and so you’d be forgiven for perceiving him in those few moments where he almost looks like he’s being careful not to break anybody on set; At one point, a downward roundhouse sends one victim flying several feet backwards. He buries a guy under his own motorcycle and in another, he picks up a pair shears and, well…you can imagine the rest. He similarly showcases equal agility next to Curtis on matters of speed and execution, making him look like a fantastic prospect for a solo-outing in his own action film should he be so lucky to get one, and I strongly advocate that he should.
Neil Bion’s cinematography is a plus for most of the film as it captures claustrophobic air the slum-turned-corpse-laden battlegrounds in the movie. Recurring heavy rain adds to the climatic danger and restless to the riotous scenes next to the utter, bloodletting and gore that accrues with visible shots of people getting stabbed by anything from knives to shards of glass, to darts. Steady camerawork along the alleyways of the slum are nothing short of the kind of horror-inducing affect one would have after filming a horror movie, filmed accordingly in the dark amidst dilapidated, shanty structures. The overhead drone shot of the slum by the end of the movie has an even more harrowing, internal affect. Roger Deakins would be proud.
Thus, we have the work of a humble crew in accordance with the tested mettle and character of one of the most competent directors working in cinema today, and on his first, hardcore action picture, no less. Nearly 1,300 extras and over 300 stuntmen were what it took, in part, to help bring BuyBust to the fray, and in rewarding fashion with a dilligent cast, and a stout, interdimensionally beautiful and talented actress at its core.
BuyBust isn’t for everyone, sadly. It’s not The Raid and some fanboys might get touchy about that, or even repulsed by a woman taking the mantle for a male-dominated action thriller of this caliber. Such is the world we live in, and the good news is, that BuyBust is now a thing is something no one can change.
Matti still has a ways to go in terms of shaping future action titles, and that’s not to say that he’s incapable. BuyBust is evident in the case it makes for his posterity in film and one only hopes he serves up another. Until then, if you don’t mind seeing something a little different that also strikes a chord or two on many topical watercooler pieces that fancy your chat-thirsty curiousity, BuyBust, as intended, is worth every penny.
BuyBust opens in North America on August 10 from Well Go USA.