On the Job: Fearless, Provocative and Eye-Opening
Illustration by Mar Virgil Eway
On the Job is a 2013 Filipino action thriller film by Erik Matti that is well-known for its worldwide premiere during the Director’s Fortnight section of the international Cannes Film Festival in the same year and its commercial release in the United States. Through fast-paced narration, appealing cinematography, a surprisingly remarkable cast and a very compelling plotline, the movie effectively features a pressing problem that is an unfortunate norm here in the Philippines — a twisted justice system that most of the time favors the ones in power.
The story opens with a festive street celebration disrupted by the sound of a gun; Mario, together with his novice Daniel, just shot a man named Tiu to death. Mario and Daniel are prisoners who get regularly released from bars to conduct paid murder operations under the orders of their boss Thelma. After they respond to the orders, they are sent back to prison like nothing happened. Daniel, the younger and wilder of the two, uses his earnings by sending some of them home and getting perks and privileges in prison. Mario spends his earnings for his daughter’s tuition, who is studying to become a lawyer, and for his estranged wife, who is getting distant to him day by day. The case of the recent killing of Tiu, initially investigated by veteran Sgt. Acosta, is transferred to NBI Agent Coronel through Congressman Manrique, who is the former’s father-in-law. Acosta deals with this bitterly, thinking that the case was taken from him for political reasons, and continues to investigate by himself. Through his former co-officer Pol who was once involved in the bloody scheme, he finds out that Tiu’s murder is just one of many murders mainly ordered by General Pacheco, a high-ranking military official, aspiring senator and close friend of Manrique. Pacheco uses prisoners to kill any hindrances that may affect his upcoming campaign.
This revelation is where the main characters literally and figuratively start to cross paths, where their lives begin to entangle with one another and where difficult choices start to rise. Daniel begins to see and deal with the repercussions of what he is about to get himself into. Mario, about to be granted parole from prison, hesitates on passing down his dangerous work to Daniel, partly because the latter lacks enough experience and discretion to be a full-fledged hit man and partly because he does not know what will be of him when he leaves. Acosta juggles his wounded pride as the NBI, led by Coronel, handles the case that was supposedly his. However, who probably has the hardest decision to make is Coronel, who has to resolve if he honors his job and his country or if he protects the dignity of his father-in-law and his wife.
The story, which is commendable for its well-thought uniqueness and complexity, is narrated through scenes that shift from the environment of the higher-ups to the setting of the poor and abused, and vice versa; transitioning in a perplexing manner at the beginning but gradually makes the viewer heavily anticipate what happens next. Truly, it does not fail to offer surprises that almost never end. Topped with angles that clearly capture the nerve-wracking divide between the sectors at odds, an ambiance that speaks of dark, serious business, and a musical score that adds to the suspense, the viewer turns to grip hardly the edge of his seat.
The way the actors deliver their roles is another notable thing. Joel Torre, who plays Mario, lives up to his name as a veteran of films with grim plotlines, as he is able to portray the raw emotions of a person that stands on the losing side of a flawed judicial system. Joey Marquez may be a mainstay in novelty, but he does not fail to encapsulate the seriousness of his role as Sgt. Acosta. Piolo Pascual and Gerald Anderson, who play Agent Coronel and Daniel respectively, are known for their roles as leading men in various romantic films, but that does not stop them from being effective actors of a thriller. Also worthy of praise is director Matti. Known for directing fantasy films like Gagamboy, Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles, Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles and the 2014 and upcoming 2015 editions of Darna, tackling a realistic story seems to be off his field of expertise, but he proves otherwise. On the Job may be different from what he usually makes, but Matti still has successfully delivered an outstanding piece of work.
Most of all, what completely sets the standard of the film is the message it wants to convey and how brave it is to do it. The conflicts shown throughout the almost two-hour duration clearly manifests the flaws of the judicial system of the country today. Crimes are masterminded by the ones in power, but are paid for by the less fortunate that are ordered to carry them out. Moreover, the ones who interfere are cruelly silenced. A lot that are supposedly faultless are left to suffer, while the real evil remains safely hidden behind the shadows of false honor and deceit. The sickness of it all, heavily injected into the last scenes of the film, compels the viewer to pause throughout the film’s end credits and ponder why it all has to happen and what could be done to stop it, if ever there is.
Most of the time, Filipinos offer to the cinema industry films that only serve to entertain and to provide profit. It is a breath of fresh air to see something that not only serves those purposes, but also aims to open the eyes of the public to what really is going on. It does not only pay to be happy; it also pays to be aware. Indeed, On the Job holds a bright future for Philippine cinema.