A one-of-a-kind premise sets On the Job ahead of the pack from the get go, though it doesn’t get bogged down by novelty.
On the Job
It’s genius in a wicked kind of way, really. Hire a hitman who’s already in prison. Get him outside the prison walls for a day (corrupt prison guards come in handy here). He’ll make the hit, return to the penitentiary, and the cops will be left clueless, searching for a suspect who’s hiding right under their noses. Erik Matti’s riveting crime-thriller On The Job revolves around this exact scheme, which is (startlingly) based on a real-life scandal that took place in the Philippines where prisoners were hired to carry out political assassinations.
The film follows two such prisoners: Tatang (veteran Filipino actor Joel Torre), a middle-aged, seasoned contract killer who’s seen it all, and his protege, Daniel (Gerald Anderson), a young, cocky son of a bitch who’s meant to replace the grizzled Tatang once he gets out of the clinker for good. Matti and co-writer Machiko Yamamoto juggle the anti-buddy-cop storyline with a parallel, much less interesting story about two cops on the other side of the scheme. Piolo Pascual plays Francis, a handsome, street-savvy, rising-star cop who takes control of the seemingly uncrackable assassination case out of the hands of Sergeant Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez), a stubborn, crusty veteran who’s less than happy to hand over the reins.
The one-of-a-kind premise sets On the Job ahead of the pack from the get go, though it doesn’t get bogged down by novelty. Matti and Yamamoto employ slow-boil storytelling, and the two duos don’t collide until a third of the way through the film (the extremely tense hospital shootout and noir-ish nighttime foot-chase sequences that result are well worth the wait). The multi-layered plot is slightly perplexing at the outset, but as the myriad plot elements begin to iron out and the true nature of the situation becomes clear, high-concept is replaced by high tension, intellect falls way to instinct and emotion, and an intense, pulsating, super-charged crime flick emerges.
Torre’s Tatang is one of the toughest, coldest killers I’ve seen in a film like this in a long time. He looks like a pot-bellied, out-of-shape everyman, which makes him all the more frightening. The film opens on the packed streets of Manila during a parade with Tatang on one of his murderous prison day trips. He blends in with the bustling crowd and weaves through them like a snake until he reaches his target, who he shoots point blank, right in the face, in broad daylight. His eyes are vacant and focused all at once–he’s clearly a man in his element, emotionless and all about business. It’s this sensibility that he’s tasked to impart onto Daniel, a loose cannon who thinks he’s untouchable (surprise surprise). The trajectory of their relationship gives the film its power, and the two actors deserve a lot of credit.
There isn’t a bad performance put forth by any member of the cast, a hodgepodge of old and young, A-list and B-list players in the Filipino movie scene. Everyone pulls their weight. Matti’s ever-mobile camera bobs and weaves through the seedy, dark Manila slums with agility, creating an ever-present sense of imbalance and spontaneity. Matti recalls Scorsese’s Goodfellas Copacabana tracking shot as he follows the back of the Mayweather-cocky Daniel through the dingy innards of the prison. Action is sparse in Matti’s film, but when violence does rear its ugly head, it erupts with brute force, and you won’t soon forget the gory, impeccably choreographed set-pieces.
Social and political corruption is the name of the game in On the Job, and though Matti says nothing new about the matter, he delves deep, and it’s the presentation of the material that will floor you. How far will good intentions get you in the rough streets of Manila? Not very far. Just ask any character in Matti’s world who shows a bit of heart.