TL;DR: BuyBust raises the bar for Filipino action filmmaking by offering intense, technically exceptional bouts of action amidst its scathing critique of Duterte’s drug war.
Throughout the years, Erik Matti has garnered critical acclaim & built a passionate audience by taking genre films with the broadest possible appeal, executing it with precision & finesse, & infusing them with his unmistakably Filipino touches that combine quirk & cynicism in fascinating ways; controversies & low box-office sales be damned. BuyBust might be the purest distillation of his work, not only delivering on its promise of non-stop action, but also smuggling a trenchant critique of Duterte’s drug war.
Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) is a skilled member of the local anti-drug task force. She rarely takes orders from her superiors ever since she found a clue leading her to believe someone in the organization double-crossed them, causing the deaths of her previous squad members. Because of this, she gained a reputation for being stubborn, which wasn’t a huge problem to her current squad leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri), who’s commanding a team for the first time. Along with the rest of their team – which includes the kind, gigantic brute Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera), nervous rookie Gelo Elia (AJ Muhlach), Bernie’s wife Alda Lacson (Sheen Gener), & two other squad members with no distinct personas/roles Loren Santos (Mara Lopez) & Iggy Hizon (Tarek El Tayecch) – they are tasked to pull off a drug bust to lure the notorious drug lord Biggie Chen out in the open, using the mid-level drug pusher Teban (Alex Calleja) as bait.
Everything is proceeding as planned when Biggie Chen decided to move the transaction within the slums of Gracia de Maria. Once inside, Biggie Chen reveals he knew about the drug bust & has trapped Nina, Bernie & the rest of the squad within its labyrinthine alleys, allowing Biggie Chen’s goons & associates to hunt them down in his own territory. While most citizens of Gracia de Maria are trying to avoid the crossfire, a deeply religious man named Solomon (Ricky Pascua) is different. He’s still grieving the death of his daughter who died in one of the anti-drug operations when an old relative of his was used as leverage & killed point blank in front of him, inspiring him & other residents of Gracia de Maria to fight back against Biggie Chen & the anti-drug task force, who put their lives in a constant state of fear & dread.
It does take a while for the violence to erupt. The film takes its time to lay out its conceit, setting up its thinly written archetypes disguised as characters as they covertly traverse Gracia de Maria without getting caught, putting us in their limited vantage point. It allows Erik Matti to show off his knack of cranking up the pressure without a single confrontation.
But once Biggie Chen’s goons starts firing at the anti-drug agents, the film erupts into a relentless onslaught of violence, to the point that it becomes exhausting & slightly repetitive. That’s by design, as Erik Matti is depicting the perpetual cycle of violence & devastation at the heart of Duterte’s deadly, ineffectual drug war in an enclosed battle royale. It’s filled to the brim with visceral, thrilling setpieces that leave everyone into a brutal, bloody pulp – making you feel every punch, stab, & gunshot thrown by those fighting for their lives – but it never forgets the resulting death & destruction left in its wake. The fact this happens on an isolated compound in the slums isn’t lost on the film either. The cramped, confined spaces emphasize the desperation & helplessness of the poor, who already have to contend with previous administrations’ failure to address our country’s poverty now finding themselves in the middle of a crossfire that rarely leaves their neighborhood. Add Philippines’ ongoing problems with corruption & police impunity & you’ve got a government policy that is not only useless, but also cruel & exploitative.
What makes it more fascinating are the actors they chose to headline the film. Anne Curtis has had an eclectic resume in the past few years – this year alone she also starred in atypically caustic romantic comedy Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) & the upcoming sci-fi horror film Aurora – & this film shows off her versatility as an actress. She may be small, but she’s a swift, ferocious fighter who dispatches her opponents quickly. She also gives Nina Manigan a convincing cynicism that the script couldn’t provide. Brandon Vera is awkward as Nina’s calmer, superstitious, more reasonable partner Rico when they’re bonding amidst the chaos, but that’s not the reason he was cast in the film anyway. Being a professional fighter in real life & pretending to fight a crowd for a movie are both different skills, & BuyBust proves he excels at both. The muscular body he gained as a mixed martial artist provides a stark contrast to the rest of the cast & it’s put to good use as he uses his sheer force to pummel through his enemies. Erik Matti & fight choreographer Sonny Sison both use their cast’s build to stage memorable fight scenes, which keeps the action novel & thrilling throughout its runtime. It is Erik Matti’s finest achievement, or at the very least his most technically accomplished film. One of the highlights is a bravura single take of Anne Curtis giving her all as she bashes her opponents in & out of the alleys & into the rooftops as she fights off an angry crowd.
But regardless of their survival, the drug-related killings will continue to persist unless people are willing to fight against a corrupt, inhumane system that allowed it to flourish. It’s not impossible. BuyBust offers some form of hope, which is surprising for a politically relevant Erik Matti film, but it comes at a cost; whether it be the numerous lives that we have lost during Duterte’s administration, our complicity to allow it happen, or those who sat willingly on the sidelines. We might be able to change the system, but none of us are going to come out of it unscathed.