We haven’t had a film quite like On The Job in a pretty long while. The Filipino mainstream in the last few years has basically only three kinds of films: broad comedies, romantic films with songs for titles, and horror pictures. The indie scene has provided a wide variety of other kinds of films, but few have had the resources to attempt anything big. On The Job is an ambitious, serious crime drama for adults, one that manages to entertain without sacrificing its depth. It is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly stagnant environment of the Filipino mainstream.
Tatang (Joel Torre) is a prison hitman: a convict occasionally set loose to kill someone on the orders of someone in power. His status as a prisoner provides the perfect alibi for his crimes. The film follows him and his protégé Daniel (Gerald Anderson) as they carry out a series of hits. Upright cop SPO1 Acosta (Joey Marquez) is investigating these murders, along with rising NBI agent Francis Coronel Jr. (Piolo Pascual). But while Francis wants to stay clean, he’s compromised by the fact that his politician father-in-law might be involved in these killings.
The film’s greatest asset is its unstoppable forward momentum. The film just keeps moving forward, never stopping too long to explain entirely what’s going on, relying on clever narrative parallels to fill out the details of this somewhat intricate plot. The film begins with a killing and never lets up on the intensity, every scene bearing a palpable sense of danger: whether it be the overt threat of bullets flying in the air, or the more subtle dread of being discovered that dominates most of the characters. The film never lets the audience forget that the characters are basically under the thumb of more powerful forces, and though they have some degree of autonomy, their lives aren’t fully under their control.
The local cut is a little different from what was shown internationally. This version includes a couple of scenes that look into the home life of SPO1 Acosta, an extra sex scene, and an additional final scene. These additions, though generally well done, fit kind of awkwardly into the narrative, and only provide marginal benefit. But the story remains intact, and despite the diversion, it’s still a propulsive piece of entertainment that also serves as a rather dark examination of the intractability of corruption in our society. Stunning production values make it a real treat for the senses. Dix Buhay’s cinematography makes the shadows of Metro Manila feel equally menacing and seductive. A powerful musical score underlines the growing desperation of the characters.
Joel Torre has long been one of the finest actors in this country, but few films have provided the actor with a role meaty enough to really make use of his talents. But On The Job exploits every last bit of the actor’s inherent gravity, Torre exuding a world-weariness that goes well beyond his years. Gerald Anderson proves to be a bit of a revelation in this film. The young actor displays a strangely charming nihilism in his performance, a heady mix of attitude and naiveté that is worth exploring further. Joey Marquez is perfect in his role as an honest cop, alternating between bursts of weary humor and righteous anger. Piolo Pascual is a bit outclassed by his co-stars, but he delivers on his end as well.
On The Job is a real treat, if only because it is the rare local mainstream film that treats its audience as adults. Its pleasures are complex and heady, built on an expertly constructed sense of atmosphere, incredible production values and a story that bucks the expectations of its viewers. I think I prefer the international cut, which ends on a more powerful image, but this local version is still more than worth anyone’s time. Hopefully, On The Job is just the start of a change in the local mainstream.