Police director Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino) and his prized team leader Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) are finally making headway with their war on drugs throughout the slums of Filipino capital Manila. They’ve already cleaned sections long-thought lost to crime and currently have one of kingpin Biggie Chen’s (Arjo Atayde) mid-level operatives (Alex Calleja’s Toban) in custody. A little “good cop/bad cop” sets the stage for how far law enforcement will go to earn their collar as well as how loyal Chen’s foot soldiers might prove. If they can cajole Toban into wearing a wire while helping them smoke out his extremely elusive boss, Alvarez’s mission would move even closer to completion. Compile the right support team to surround them on this sting operation and victory appears within their grasp.
Let’s just say writer/director Erik Matti isn’t interested in tactics or covert precision when it comes to action thriller BuyBust. His plot is less about whether Chen will be caught than providing a venue for excessively violent carnage along the way. So he ensures that the buy must switch settings from a public square to the rough and tumble kill box of Gracia Ni Maria. He introduces chip-on-her-shoulder Officer Manigan (Anne Curtis) as his cautiously paranoid protagonist who’s only too familiar with seeing the results of traitorous double crosses first-hand — she was the lone survivor when her previous squad was exterminated by a so-called “Judas.” And places a boy scout of a leader at the center (Victor Neri’s Bernie Lacson) ready to show his recent promotion was justified.
As soon as they enter the walls of this infamous slum populated by folks who’d kill cops and criminals alike if it meant restoring peace for an hour, the mission becomes simple: survive the night. It’ll be easier said than done once we realize the logistics aren’t quite up to snuff. Not only must they let Dela Cruz lead his team unarmed into the lion’s den, Lacson’s group is forced into restraining any civilians they pass along the way so as not to risk giving away their presence. So we have a handful of officers with rifles drawn in the shadows waiting for a signal from those few brave souls inside. Without any backup to not raise suspicions, tensions run high until all hell breaks loose.
Chen wants them all dead and the residents know helping stop ten cops out of their element is more efficient than trying to take down an army on home turf (they’re collateral damage and made militant by necessity). What follows is therefore a wild ride from one impossibly tight environment to the next with Manigan, Lacson, and Brandon Vera’s mountain of a man Yatco among others doing all they can to maim, throw, and kill anyone close enough to stab, hit, or shoot them first. Think The Raid but outside and less structured as each high-octane sequence leads to a brief respite to see who’s still alive before beginning again. It’s a fever dream of déjà vu for Manigan as she works to put the pieces together before bleeding out.
That’s not a lot of substance for a film running north of two hours and boy do you feel it — especially during the opening half. The time it takes between putting the wire on Toban and the first gunshot in Gracia Ni Maria is only about thirty minutes, but you’d swear you watched the entire two hours that passes in-film according to the periodic superimposition of a red-numbered clock. You live with it, though, because Matti is building suspense. He’s trying to show the walls closing in around Lacson’s squad as they discover just how helpless they are within. And it would have worked too if the chaos that ensued was as potent as The Raid‘s glorious choreography rather than the one-step too slow, quick-cut fights we receive.
It hurts even more because the final hour-plus is literally all fighting. Guns are blaring and knives are swinging through the air before being buried deep into flesh. Some of the sequences are crazy in construction, but few make good on their promise of showing more than easy blocks and arm-twisting flips. The saving grace becomes an ever-increasing body count on all three sides of the confrontation (cops, criminals, and angry townsfolk caught in the middle). Matti goes full kitchen sink at one point with a vicious decapitation, but that’s the only kill moving beyond the usual bullet or slit throat. And besides a badass overhead vantage of Yatco mowing through too many bad guys to count, they’re shot like most frenetic Hollywood actioners.
Add a surprisingly talkie ending that tries to walk back the no-holds-barred bloodshed for the revelation of a secret I honestly didn’t care about anymore and I found myself fatigued rather than excited. Curtis goes agro on a few well-placed groupings of antagonists minimizing the long odds they should produce, but watching her kill with impunity is counterproductive to her reversal from lone wolf to team player BuyBust attempts to sell. Eventually we realize that Manigan’s friends were no more important than her enemies — each one a pawn placed on the board to prolong her inevitable face-to-face with the person responsible for her pain and anguish. Without the ability to earn her psychological complexity save a cursory mention of what happened last time, it’s all empty violence.
I almost wish there wasn’t a team because then her one-woman-army antics wouldn’t have anything to hold them back. As is her fellow officers don’t impact her motivations or ruthless pragmatism in the slightest. Who she is at the beginning is who she remains, so whether we receive twenty minutes of expert choreography or the ninety minutes of inconsistent action we do is inconsequential. I wouldn’t say I didn’t have fun at times, though. There’s a lot to like about what Matti accomplished, but it’s tough not to wish it were pared down to be as lean and mean as its star. I’d say I simply expected too much, but the ending shows I didn’t. The film unfortunately spends too long forgetting it had that socially relevant story to tell.
BuyBust is now playing the Fantasia International Film Festival and hits the US with a limited theatrical release on August 10th.