BuyBust, Erik Matti’s new film, may be about the horrors of the drug war, but it is crafted with an almost-festive sense of theatricality. There is no other way by which this story, about a tough-as-nails squad of law enforcers fighting their way out of a botched operation, could have derived entertainment from familiar and dark realities.
The tropes begin with the contrast between the two main protagonists. Anne Curtis, popular romantic leading lady, plays Nina Manigan, the hardened latest member of the squad, who joins them coming from a traumatic experience—she is the lone survivor of a previous operation also gone terribly wrong. The guilt haunts her, and it shows in her rogue tendencies. She is paired with Rico Yatco, played by mixed martial artist Brandon Vera, the big, bad brawler with a gentle heart, who likes telling Nina that his bottle-cap lucky charm is the key to their salvation.
Nina and Rico, with their tactical commander Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri) and an assortment of bearded and braided teammates, are sent on a buy-bust mission to capture a drug lord ostentatiously nicknamed Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). The operation that sends them to the dark heart of Manila’s slums becomes a literal trap, as the angry locals turn against them, blocking their way out of the colorful but hellish and maze-like settlement. This is more than the typical Hollywood action flick that pits cops against drug cartels in favelas; as Matti himself describes it, BuyBust is ‘a zombie movie without zombies’. The operatives try to make their way to safety by shooting, stabbing, and smashing their way through wave upon wave of bloodthirsty bodies.
The array of opponents they encounter is of an impressive variety. It is not just the gun-toting hoodlums and the berserk tambay gangs; there is a proportional number of women, a visible number of them even wearing hijabs. There is also a throng of gay men brandishing cooking pans and other improvised weapons—Yatco pushes them back using the kind of large, multi-colored umbrella used by vendors in wet markets. It is somewhat comical, quite bizarre, but definitely entertaining for the novelty and madness of it all.
Among the henchmen on the side of the drug dealers, there are the Tondo Kids, a riding-in-tandem duo who, against logic, makes motorcycle-mounted gunfighting work in the claustrophobic alleys of the slum. Another faction is led by ‘Manok’ (Joross Gamboa), the flamboyant crackpot, cackling like his avian namesake. Our protagonists face these characters in a sequence of equally diverse set pieces; at one point, a horde of knife-wielding locals ambush the law enforcers by jumping on them from tree branches. Indeed, much of BuyBust plays out in a way that has also been described as like a video game, where Manigan and company work through minor opponents of various abilities, building up to a final boss battle.
These aspects sound silly, and they are, but it only makes this multitoned film more entertaining. Matti is celebrated as a master of genre filmmaking, and all the associated pleasures that could be expected from his works are present here. It is loud and flashy; it is exciting, exhilarating, and riveting. It is an action movie, after all. It spends little effort in characterization, but that is not a failure of craft; that is the convention of the genre. A story with an expendable ensemble of characters merely needs them to play familiar types. The dead-serious squad is balanced, for example, by their collaborator, the feisty and crafty drug-dealer Teban (Alex Calleja). The bloody action itself is uneven, but serviceable; there are a few truly terrific moments. Curtis of course does not exhibit the same raw brutality that Vera can muster, but she is a convincing fighter here, and her character figures at the center of an impressively-staged long take towards the end of the film, an instant-classic scene in contemporary Philippine action movies.
The filmmakers also embellish this story of “apocalyptic violence” with biblical allusions. The slum where the bloodbath takes place is ironically called Barangay Gracia ni Maria, grace of Mary. The squad refers to the unidentified informant who betrays them as Judas. They initially plan to arrest Biggie Chen at Rajay Sulayman Park; Sulayman is the Arabic form of Solomon (king of Israel), and is also the name of the character who stands as the leader of the locals at Gracia ni Maria (played by Ricky Pascua). Biggie Chen’s right-hand man, Chongki (Levi Ignacio), demands the surrender of the agents in exchange for the life of a local civilian; while threatening to execute the man, he proclaims like Pontius Pilate that the man’s “blood is in your hands, not mine.”
BuyBust’s soundtrack is similarly well-considered. The early scenes at a training camp are accompanied by indigenous instrumentals. Later, during a tense lull in between the clashes, the national anthem blares from some unseen source, distorted and solemn. In the heat of battle, the music ramps up to no-holds-barred, full-volume rock.
Most impressive, of course, are the sets constructed and effects orchestrated for the film. The production conveys a coherent mood—one of despair—through an assortment of materials: wood and iron, soil and concrete, glass and chemical, rain and thunder, fire and smoke. At one corner of Gracia ni Maria, the shanties end where a cemetery begins; in one quiet scene, the wall of stacked graves provide the poignant background to a scene of littered dead bodies.
And yet, as a film directly dealing with a current social issue, BuyBust is ultimately both chilling and preposterous. Chilling, for the scale of death and destruction it depicts, which reflects without hesitance and in concentrated form the reality of the bloodbath unfolding across the country today. But also preposterous, because of the stylized portrayal that is both sensational and unreasonably cynical, fulfilling a non-negotiable requirement of blockbuster-scaled action movies.
BuyBust re-imagines the drug war as total war: a fantasy conflict where special agents of the law are heroes and heroines who commit everything to the call of duty, where organized drug syndicates are their dreadful, worthy opponents, and where the civilians who have had enough raise an army of their own to join the battle, finding strength in numbers. This film is a startling picture of the drug war’s repercussions, but it is not a reliable account of its realities. It barely discusses the issue of police brutality, the support of Filipinos for the campaign, or the helplessness of its actual victims.
BuyBust’s conclusion aggravates this further, ironically by ending like any thriller should. As with Erik Matti’s previous works, especially On The Job and Seklusyon, BuyBust closes on a haunting, conspiratorial note, concluding the present story but starting a larger, more important one, the rest of which is left to the viewer’s imagination. It is masterful storytelling, making for a film that leaves a lasting impression and demands for a post-screening discussion, a discussion that unfortunately would lead to nowhere because the story already tells us ordinary people are helpless in the end. It is fatalism at its finest. After all the compelling, epic action, BuyBust suggests that there is little hope in struggling, that the social justice our heroes are fighting for is already a lost cause.
Film still taken from the film’s international trailer.