Wednesday, February 6, 2019

BuyBust (2018)

The Manila police has caught a mid-level drug dealer and “convinces” him to help them arrange a drug buy with his boss, one Biggie Chen. A squad of militarized “war on drugs” police are supposed to keep the situation under control, but things go wrong from the get-go. Chen moves the buy at the last minute into a claustrophobic slum he clearly has much tighter control over than anyone has expected. Turns out the whole thing is a trap managed by a traitor inside the police force going by the original code name of “Judas”, and soon half of the police team is dead and the other half, cut off from all support, begins a desperate fight for survival. Not just against Chen’s men but also against much of an enraged local populace who hate the gangsters and the police to pretty much the same degree, thanks to nobody involved on either side giving a crap about their lives or security.

Erik Matti’s Filipino action movie BuyBust is a highly impressive effort driven by some fantastic work in front of and behind the screen and what feels like genuine anger about the Filipino War on Drugs.

As an action film, this at times feels like a horizontal play on Gareth Evans’s The Raid: Redemption. The action here isn’t quite as fast and furious as in the Indonesian-Welsh production, but that’s because Matti clearly has his own ideas about the rhythms of an action movie. While the violence certainly escalate from somewhat naturalistic into something properly outrageous with an insane body count as is action cinema’s wont, for large parts of its running time BuyBust thrives on a stop/start, quiet/loud structure whose forward drive consequently feels a bit different from the way much of action cinema works. It’s a difficult trick to play in this genre, pacing-wise, but this approach provides BuyBust with quite a bit of individuality even for those among its viewership, like me, who have seen a lot of fictional people knifed, shot, etc in a lot of different ways, providing it with a feel fresh even though it tells an old story. One could argue that the film is a bit too long, and I certainly could see it losing ten to fifteen minutes somewhere around the middle, but then, a lot of great movies could.

The film prefers its action scenes up close and personal, even in gunfights, with its characters trapped in the claustrophobic environs of the slum, then trapped again by a lot of bodies trying to kill them, or the fights taking place in small enclosed spaces and so on and so fort. This gives some of the action a peculiarly intimate feeling even when the protagonists are fighting that most anonymous of enemies, action movie henchmen. But then, thanks to this intimacy, these henchmen feel a bit more like dying, bleeding and killing people than usual in the genre, consciously providing some of the violence here with more of a bad aftertaste than one might be used to, and fitting into the film’s political anger quite well.

And make no mistake, even though this is a movie that has a lot of fun with violence, it is also one that’s utterly, bitterly pissed off about the War on Drugs, arguing that its only use is to get many people dead and a few people – both on the side of the “law” and the drug runners – very rich indeed. In this view, people like our protagonist Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), who truly believe they are doing something to change the world, are just exactly the good footsoldiers and cannon fodder this sort of thing needs. In this regard, the film’s somewhat open ending that sees Manigan coming to an understanding of the world she’s living in and attempting to do something about it, yet then concluding before she can finish more than the most direct business (with even more violence, of course) is as far as optimism can reach.

Curtis turns out to be a wonderful physical actress, going through her action scenes with so much intensity of poise it’s not at all important she’s actually not quite as good a screen fighter as most of the rest of the cast (Brandon Vera is particularly great at pretend violence); acting, it turns out, beats being particularly good at hitting people in the face, at least in this case.

I found myself nearly as enamoured with Matti’s direction. There is a lot to love about it: be it his masterful treatment of localized sound (there’s some wonderful use of the contrast between diegetic and non-diegetic sound here), the way he uses a mix of the traditional green and red light and rain to emphasize the claustrophobia of the places the characters run through while still keeping in mind that these are actually people’s homes, the often extremely inventive changes in pacing – it doesn’t just feel good (action movies are, as you know, all about making you feel good about movement), it’s also clearly highly conceptualized and thought through.

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