For years now, the Filipino action film, which lorded it over the local entertainment scene decades ago, has been practically extinct. On occasion, some efforts are made to revive it, although without much success.
But, the current film “On the Job” is doing better than expected at the tills, so if it continues to prosper, it could help revive the once popular film type, to the delight of its macho adherents who, for over a decade, have been patronizing American actioners instead.
Those blockbusters have scored at the box office, but they don’t give local action fans the down-home specificity and local context and “flavor” once supplied by the starrers of Fernando Poe Jr., Joseph Estrada, Ramon Revilla and Lito Lapid.
Happily, some of those long-lost traits are to be found in “On the Job,” so hope springs for a second coming for the Filipino actioner.
“OTJ,” directed by Erik Matti and scripted by Michiko Yamamoto, is energized by its savvy choice of topic: Prisoners who are guns-for-hire are spirited out of prison to kill important people for a syndicate, then go back to jail, where they have the perfect alibi, and the crime thus goes unsolved.
As this movie tells it, the syndicate is financed by powerful people with strong military ties, and they practically run the country. Thus, their nefarious activities are acutely relevant to the issues of corruption and absence of genuine peace and justice that are so much in the news these days.
Aside from this alarming context, the film scores with its close-up look into the lives of two hired killers, the “old” Tatang (Joel Torre), and his young protégé (Gerald Anderson).
They provide the specificity and personal conflicts that prevent the movie’s topic and theme from being just abstract verities that don’t impinge all that much on viewers’ feelings.
Other personal connections are made by two NBI officers played by Piolo Pascual and Rayver Cruz. In particular, Pascual’s character is eminently “corruptible,” because his wife is the daughter of a “well-connected” politician with blood on his hands.
These and other conflicted characters provide details and texture that reveal how deeply “institutionalized” corruption and coopted justice have sundered the nation’s core.
Most instructive of all is Tatang’s tragic tale: Killing has become just a job to him, but the “machine” that he has become is still fraught with feelings that ultimately push him, when his tenuous family life crumbles, to the quixotic “sacrificial” act that, depending on how you perceive it, either damns or “saves” the protégé whom he’s learned to love as his surrogate son.
Piolo’s character is similarly complex in conception and execution, and his portrayal culminates in his own “sacrificial” act that, again depending on how you see it and its aftermath, could mean nothing or everything in how it comes to bear on the all-important struggle against corruption.
On the minus side, the film can be occasionally faulted for too much fuss and bother to make some scenes look more “interesting” and “textured,” like the “water festivity” scene in which Tatang executes his first victim. In addition, the storytelling encompasses more characters than it can clearly limn and develop.
But, these are minor distractions that don’t adversely compromise its overall power and focus.
Finally, one of the film’s most unique strengths is its complex and sometimes even contradictory view of life, eschewing facile black-and-white renditions in favor of a more realistically complicated depiction and interpretation, depending on the characters involved, and their apparent or hidden motives.
This “attack” presumes that viewers are similarly capable of complex perception.