Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: AWOL is a Humdrum Actioner with a Rotten Core

 

TL;DR: AWOL filters Duterte’s Drug War into a tale of state-sponsored vigilantism that’s not only morally irresponsible, but boring.

Lt. Abel Ibarra (Gerald Anderson) is the leader of an elite sniper squad, highly respected & easily befriended by his peers. He takes one final mission – hunting down a terrorist leader – before he settles in the city to teach in military school, so he can be closer to his family. They succeed, but it has bigger ramifications than they thought when a bomb snuck inside a lechon (roast pig) kills of his teammates & their families. Abel & his family are taken into a protection program, while the police investigates the crime. However, Abel thinks the investigation isn’t proceeding quickly as he wanted to, so he decides to ignore his superior’s orders & undergo an absence without leave, hunting down the people who are trying to kill him & his family.


Men, and it’s almost always a man, out to deliver justice on their own due to the failures of a flawed criminal justice system are a common trope in action movies. AWOL goes into familiar territory, with Abel picking off his enemies one by one with efficiency. What makes it different is it cribs details from the current War on Drugs launched by President Rodrigo Duterte, and tweaking it to suit its own needs. Abel fights back as a vigilante in order to keep his family safe. His final mission involves a terrorist who has ties to a powerful man whose son is a drug-addled convicted rapist; because of course he is. His superior is initially hesitant to support him, but after Abel convinces him by underlining the danger his family is in, he not only hides Abel’s actions from the police, but gives gives him intel on his assailants.

It would be fine if the movie examines Abel’s actions & its roots, but the movie is more focused on delivering the thrills. Make no mistake: this is an escapist fantasy, where one man serves out justice to his enemies by killing them, sometimes slowly, since the government is mired with incompetence & red tape to do its job effectively. It’s not interested in probing Abel’s impulses nor the military’s complicity in supporting Abel, since the movie doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with his actions; even if at one point he tortures one of the people who attempted to kill him when that man is so badly injured he couldn’t fight back.  Despite Abel’s horrifying actions, it distills a morally complex tale to a simple, glorified revenge tale.


This aspect even seeps its way on the action sequences. In the movie’s point of view, Lt. Abel Ibarra is a skilled “good” guy, while the rest are fodder for his bullets; his name is Abel Ibarra for crying out loud. We know because he’s the movie’s moral center & he can barrel through enemies with few struggles. The movie’s utter belief on its lead & his morals sucks any tension inherent in the premise.

This could’ve been a minor issue if the action scenes are enjoyable, but it also fails on that front. While the movie is buoyed with great production values & crisp night lighting, the action scenes are a bland, point & shoot affair. There’s nothing slick nor inventive about the action. It takes the shaky-cam approach, but without the imagination to make it work.

The cast couldn’t even make the characters seem more like cardboard cutouts, but that’s mostly the failure of a limp script. Gerald Anderson does his impression of a scorned vigilante & it never feels authentic. He’s better when he’s bonding with his wife & child, but that part is barely in the movie. The rest of the cast barely make an impression, doing their best to make their roles more substantial but failing to do so.

However, the best thing about the movie is its brief runtime. If you’re going to spend less time with this movie, the better. There’s always been an authoritarian bent to vengeance films, but by cherry-picking the grim realities of the Philippines’ current drug war & reflecting it back at us for our entertainment, it ignores its own political context & simplifies an ongoing problem in the Philippines & Duterte’s response to it in until nothing substantial is left. It’s irresponsible, & it’s done in service of an action movie that doesn’t deliver on the cheap thrills.

Advertisements

Can We Still Be Friends? is Not The Movie Its Title Makes It Out To Be

TL;DR: The title may be misleading, but this is a charming romantic comedy honed in on the specific struggles of long-term relationship.

It really doesn’t.

This movie doesn’t tackle the hotly debated question in its title. Rather, it uses that idea to examine a relationship at a crossroads.

Digs & Sam, both played by Gerald Anderson & Arci Muñoz respectively, have been together for eight years, living in a condo unit together both of them are still paying for. Sam is an ambitious, hardworking creative getting passed over for promotions. She mostly takes care of her boyfriend Digs, an illustrator who often freelances. He’s a charming, irresponsible slacker who doesn’t even clean up their condo. Sam wants Digs to be more responsible by doing his fair share of house work, help her pay the bills more often, go on exciting dates, propose to her, & refill empty pitchers with water while Digs wants to maintain their seemingly idyllic life. They both love each other, as their playful banter & Digs’ ability to defuse the simmering tension between them shows, but they are reaching a breaking point. Both of them finally snap & decide to end their relationship.

Digs is supposed to stay at his friend’s house, but when Sam offered him to stay in the condo out of courtesy – since they both own the condo unit – he took her up on her offer. Not only that, both of them decided they should be friends, creating one of the most awkward living situations in Filipino cinema.

And this movie milks the awkwardness for every last drop. Both of them try their best to be friendly with each other, even if the wounds from their break up are still fresh. It doesn’t help that Sam clearly loves Digs but can’t put up with his immaturity, while Digs is hoping for an easy reconciliation. It’s how they end up ogling at each other when working out at their condo & going on awkward Tinder dates.

The movie might sound farcical, but it’s the exact opposite. It’s a grounded tale that asks what happens when one person in a relationship changes & one doesn’t, whether we can be patient enough to wait for our partner to overcome his/her shortcomings & if love is enough to solve these issues. This is one of Star Cinema’s toned down efforts. It is more attuned to the specifics of their relationship, where every interaction is the result of the years they’ve been together with all of the baggage it carries. This means it could focus on the messy emotions onscreen.

In fact, this feels more like a Prime Cruz movie with a Star Cinema budget. There’s the heavy focus on urban life, cramped living spaces & the alienation that’s packaged with the former – this time heightened by an ineffectual partner & the subsequent breakup – scored with a spare synth reminiscent of BP Valenzuela – who scored Cruz’s debut Sleepless – that’s atypical of Star Cinema. His movies are always gorgeous & emphasize the spaces between the characters & the environment, but it gets a step up with his move to a major studio, making it his sleekest film visually. One of the best scenes in the movie highlight these qualities, where Sam is suddenly a part of marriage proposal & she tries to dance away her loneliness.

And he’s blessed with actors who can pull off the material with ease. Gerald Anderson has the boy-next-door charm that can make the audience overlook Digs’ flaws, but he’s capable of carrying a dramatic scene when needed. Arci Muñoz has the meatier role & she’s completely astounding in it. She’s captures the confidence, longing & sadness of her character without betraying what makes it tick, & can make you laugh with a simple facial expression. And the chemistry they have together can warm up the coldest of hearts, which the movie exploits, since they don’t spend majority of the movie as a couple. It makes us want to root for them even more.

But it’s not without its hiccups. It has the typical third act problems Star Cinemas usually have when its movies are forced to come up with a happy ending. This movie mostly avoids these flaws without betraying the movie’s themes by sticking its focus on the characters, yet it’s still rushed, skipping a few beats in order to get them back together.

However, it doesn’t tarnish the movie at all. It’s a small flaw in one of the best movies released by Star Cinema in recent years, & another excellent movie from Prime Cruz. It may not answer whether exes can be friends, but it takes something relatable & cringy & uses it as a springboard for something specific & real, with a more than capable couple at the center. It’s not the movie we expected, but it is better for it.