Everything about ‘Buy Bust’ is an exercise in chaos, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Told in the span of one night, ‘Buy Bust’ is about two teams of PDEA officers who must rush an undercover drug operation in the middle of Gracia ni Maria, a labyrinthine slum area in Tondo, before a big time drug lord flees the country and, as many action movies go, everything goes wrong and all hell breaks loose.
Director Erik Matti, who co-wrote the film with Anton Santamaria, is lax with character exposition, and introduces Officer Manigan, played by Anne Curtis, as the lone survivor of a previous drug bust gone bad. Officer Manigan must now join a new team, which includes mixed martial arts fighter Brandon Vera, and a new supervising officer, played by Victor Neri. Aside from suspicion that her previous team was betrayed and a short sequence to show that she’s more “lone wolf” than “team player,” the film brings us straight into the buy-bust operation.
And why not? The trailer boasts of complex action set pieces and we want to see Curtis and Vera breaks heads, shoot guns, and stab people. Let’s get right down to it.
Matti does not disappoint. Gracia ni Maria is a marvelously designed slum area that lives and breathes all the worst things that we think of when we think of Tondo. The claustrophobic tangle of shanties and tiny corridors filled with people plays off vibrantly from the moment they enter until the film’s end. This is a visual assault of the senses, but Matti throws more at you. Everything goes wrong and Officer Manigan and her team must survive one night being chased by the drug lord and his henchmen and the inhabitants of Gracia ni Maria, who no longer want to be caught in the crossfire between the police and the criminal elements that plague their city.
‘Buy Bust’ runs for a little over two hours and except for the dragging first thirty minutes to set up the drug operation, the movie hits fifth gear and barely ever lets up. It’s chaos from the moment everything goes wrong and the Drug Enforcement Agents must find a way out when there is no help to be found — and who would help the police in a slum like this? This is one of the stronger thematic points that the film raises — and enemies are literally crawling on the rooftops and are familiar with the territory.
When chaos is let loose, it imbeds itself with every aspect of the film. The action is non-stop and brutal. Enemies are flying from every possible corner and the sometimes handheld camera tries to capture the frenzy as best as it can. But with the editing fast cutting between characters in full-fight or flight mode, it’s hard to keep track of the action in some moments. There is also a lack of determining geography so, oftentimes, you are lost as to where some people are during an action sequence and this can add to the confusion. Everything is happening so fast and this is a stylistic choice that can work for the movie but I prefer when it keeps one character in frame in the midst of all that brutality. I’ll speak more about that later.
The music, though, by Erwin Romulo and Malek Lopez is a smorgasbord of musical styles that fits very well into the chaos. The sound design and mixing is superb, sometimes even stealing the thunder from the visuals, because it’s so overpowering, but rightly so. The music is punctuated by screams, gunfire, punches and kicks, and grunts is an aural tapestry that really serves this movie well.
Even the casting is chaotic. Putting Anne Curtis as the lead of an action movie that uses none of her charm and sweetness is an act of chaos that works wonders for the film. She completes throws away everything that we’ve known about her and gives us a completely new character that we don’t only believe. We cheer for her Officer Manigan, even if we know nothing about who she is. That’s been the star power and sheer presence of Anne Curtis and it’s in full display here.
But it’s Curtis’ charisma that has me questioning the quick cuts and the shaky camera movements. I want to see her kicking butts and being bad-ass. The film is at its best when the camera and editing stop playing and just captures Curtis and Vera cracking heads, taking hits, and hitting back. There’s so much great visuals here but the camera and editing keeps moving that it’s hard to enjoy fully.
But before we write off ‘Buy Bust’ as a just a brutal action flick, its third act fires off with surprising revelations that reminds us that all this excessive violence is still social commentary. Make no mistake that ‘Buy Bust’ is a political movie and it’s strongest when it’s not enjoying the bloodbath. It’s the secrets behind the curtain and the collateral damage and how it affects the bystanders where the film finds its firmest footing.
And underneath the two-hour exercise in chaos is a film with something to say. I can’t help think that something a little more compact, a film that is as condensed as the tight spaces of Gracia ni Maria, would have been even more effective in delivering the message.
'Buy Bust' opens in cinemas nationwide on August 1, 2018.