On The Job

Director Erik Matti’s graphic crime movie is a quantum leap for modern Philippine cinema.

On The Job Poster

By the time you reach On The Job’s one hour mark, you realize you actually care about the characters.

This is what makes Erik Matti’s gritty Filipino crime drama a cut above the rest.

Yes, the cinematography is a stunning visual feast.

Yes, the sound editing provides a wonderful sonic experience.

Yes, the “true events” plot about gun-for-hire inmates makes for an intriguing premise.

But On The Job’s chief delight lies in the fact that finally – FINALLY – we have cinematic characters that truly resonate on screen. Guys that act, talk, and think like real people with genuine problems, painful relationships, and tough decisions to make.

Joel Torre gives a singular performance as Tatang, the earnest convict/hitman who is routinely extracted from prison by shady government people to assassinate prominent individuals. He embraces this arrangement and uses the pay to put his daughter through college and provide for his wife’s livelihood. Whenever he’s out for a job, he visits the family under the pretence that he’s got time off from his busy “job” in the far south. It works for everyone.

Torre’s low-key, world-weary Tatang is the heart of On The Job. In fact, I’d say that if Tatang failed as a character, the whole movie would have collapsed. Fortunately, Torre imbues him with understated pathos and sensitivity.

Tatang aches but he’s no wet blanket. He’ll kill when he has to and head straight home for a bowl of sinigang.

Yet for all his street smarts and deftness with a gun, he’s anxious about post-prison life as an aging ex-con. The arrangement stipulates he can only be a hitman while still in the can (that’s why it works – the suspects are off the street before the police can mount a proper investigation). Once prison is over, it’s back to a normal existence.

Tatang is told he gets out in a month. He has everything and nothing to look forward to. Thanks to Joel Torre we feel his pain, triumph, excitement and rage on a visceral level.

Gerald Anderson is also a joy to watch. As the cocky Daniel Benitez, Tatang’s fellow inmate and kid apprentice, he could easily have overacted this role. Instead he ignites the screen with bursts of youthful angst tempered by an abiding reverence for Tatang. He becomes a son to the elder convict as he receives his training and prepares to take the mantle as hitman successor. Their relationship blossoms despite their extreme circumstances.

Torres and Anderson share a genuine chemistry which makes their onscreen friendship all the more compelling. Their murderous bond is what anchors the film.

Which leads us to the “good guys”: Sgt. Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez) and Atty. Francis Coronel, Jr (Piolo Pascual) – two cops trying to track down the elusive assassins.

Marquez is explosive as Sgt. Acosta. He disappears into his role as a middle-aged, frazzled cop who, handicapped by behind-the-scenes politics, is struggling to bring down the bad guys. His dead-end work and rebellious son keep him frayed and perpetually frustrated. He deals with all this by constantly swearing and treating his NBI counterparts with sarcasm and thinly veiled contempt.

I think Marquez had the most fun with his character. He chews scenery with his loud and abrasive presence, his sandpaper voice, and consistent flurry of invectives. When he looks up, tired and worn out, you almost gasp for breath on his behalf. He’s exactly what an honest, burned out cop in the PNP would look like (surely there are such individuals?) Best of all, he doesn’t have to explain, apologize, or wax lyrical about anything. His strain and frustration are clear to see. It’s an excellent performance.

Piolo Pascual as Atty. Francis Coronel, Jr is less convincing. Francis is a 32-year-old NBI agent married to the daughter of a prominent politico who is in cahoots with General Pacheco, a former military man who is a) running for senator, b) the main guy behind hiring prison-bound contract killers to exterminate undesirables, and c) personally involved in the death of Francis’ crime-fighting father.

Did you get that?

That’s all the back story offered on his character; one convoluted and largely unnecessary plotline that could have been entirely done away with. Seriously, On The Job would have been fine without it. In fact I think that if they cut out/minimized all those characters in favour of the other storylines, we’d have had a leaner and meaner film.

Piolo’s wife could have been scrapped (she does nothing to further the plot); the father-in-law could have remained a shadow figure (although Michael de Mesa delivers a sufficiently oily performance); and General Pacheco could have been relegated to photographs tacked to a precinct wall.

As for Piolo, he’s saddled with a cumbersome narrative with little else to sink his teeth into. His good-looks and natural charm are a draw but only go so far. He brings no personality to the role, no emotion, no real conflict. You’d think a 32-year-old attorney/NBI agent would be a lot more interesting. If he’d been a maverick NBI officer oozing passion and snarky one-liners we’d have had a better Francis Coronel Jr. As such, he wasn’t written that way and we could have done without him.

In fact, if there’s one thing On The Job suffers, it’s an overabundance of characters. I already mentioned the crop of names in Piolo’s storyline. There are also others who show up briefly and then conveniently disappear (Sgt. Acosta’s son; Daniel’s girlfriend who appears for an obligatory sex scene). Others are fascinating but underexplored (the smoking lady in the van; Francis’ NBI partner). Many of these guys should have been cut during the scriptwriting process.

The only supporting characters worth caring about are Tatang’s wife and daughter. I just wish the scriptwriters had invested more in these persons. The big finale is satisfactory but not as devastating as it should have been. Again, something a few tweaks to the script could have remedied.

That said, On The Job is a marvel when stacked against other Pinoy films. It is a major technical achievement on many levels.

The direction crackles and feels more like the debut of a young hungry filmmaker than the work of an established director. The camerawork is fluid and assured; the action is gripping and fairly well-paced (save for the prison fight between Daniel and a tall, obnoxious inmate – clearer action and a little less shaky cam would have been nice.)

The cinematography is splendid. Manila looks and feels like Manila. Tatang’s prison is grimy, cramped, and depressing but manages to feel like a real home for the convicts – a strangely colourful cacophony of crowded beds and sweaty bodies.

The sound is vivid, crisp and ambient. Gone are the days of actors’ voices sounding like they’re dubbed in a studio. The varied tones of dialogue, the snappy gunshots, the hundred other noises blended into a perfect aural mix – this film’s audio is refreshingly great and helps keep the story at the forefront.

Is the film a cinematic masterpiece on par with the likes of City of God or Elite Squad? No. But it is definitely something you need to watch and celebrate. On The Job may be hamstrung by a tortuous plot and several superfluous performances but congratulations are still in order. Erik Matti has not only made a damn good Filipino film, he’s made a damn good film, period. For that, I rejoice and look forward to his next outing – and the fresh breed of Pinoy films that this landmark movie will surely inspire.

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