Sometime last year, I managed to finagle a copy of ELITE SQUAD 2: THE ENEMY WITHIN from a distributor by request, mostly because I had heard so many good things about the motion picture from online friends. In a nutshell, the story explores how institutional corruption builds as well as feeds on itself when it’s sanctioned by whatever form of government created and propagated it for general use; but what the film did uniquely well was show how that behemoth truly destroys the lives of those in and around the institution’s various agencies. Personally, I loved the film – as did many, many others – and it was probably the one piece of entertainment that received the highest number of recommendations from me to others looking for something worthwhile.
Well, 2014 is only off to a start, and I may’ve already found this year’s contender: a Filipino crime thriller called ON THE JOB. To me, it’s come out of nowhere – I’ve heard absolutely nothing about the flick. I just plucked it from the DVD player … and I’m honestly thinking I’ll throw it back in tomorrow. Yes, it’s that good.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
A prominent drug dealer is shot dead on the streets during a public celebration. The killers – Tatang (played with simmering fury by Joel Torre) and Danny (Gerald Anderson) – simply walk away and disappear into the crowd. A few blocks away, an SUV picks them up … and returns them to prison. As it turns out, the local criminal syndicate has been using jailed inmates to do their dirty work for years, precisely because no possible suspicion could fall on something presently incarcerated. It’s the perfect cover-up, but it’s gradually come to the attention of police Sergeant Acosta (Joey Marquez). He’s on track to uncover who’s calling the shots until federal agent Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual) is suddenly assigned to the case. And as Coronel has connections high up within the current administration, Acosta smells a greater cover-up is only on the horizon.
To put it blithely, ON THE JOB has a myriad of plots at work within its 116 minute run-time. Tatang and Danny are criminals, but they hardly consider themselves a violent sort; as they’ve been granted off-the-record leaves to assassinate the political rivals of the current officials, they’ve also begun the process of putting their lives back together with lovers, wives, and friends. Plus, Tatang has been mentoring Danny to take over the ‘business’ as his parole is right around the corner; as such, they’re created a unique father/son relationship. By contrast, Acosta is the aged veteran on the force – he’s the guy no one believes when he comes up with a theory involving the killings, so it’s natural that he go about his investigations publicly with a forced detachment. Coronel is an up’n’comer; he wants his shot at changing the world and weeding out the corruption – it’s just that he never even realized how close the true source of fraud was to him.
These differing personalities all come together, bound on a collision course of shared destiny. They think they’re all in charge of their own futures, but what they come to learn is that they sit many levels removed from the true puppet masters. That won’t stop them from trying to do the right thing if and when the opportunity presents itself; what shatters their reality is that ‘the right thing’ may still end up being something highly unethical if not downright illegal.
Director Erik Matti has assembled a terrific cast, and he keeps the tension building in one of the smartest and most original crime thrillers of the last decade. It’s smart. It’s relevant. It’s timely. Like all great crime stories, it peels back just one layer to show you how much more there is waiting underneath. There’s even a timelessness to the various conclusions of these interwoven stories that reminds us that, despite our best efforts, we’ll never triumph over corruption that’s managed and investigated by corrupt people. That monster not only eats its tail but also keeps coming back for more.
ON THE JOB  is produced by ABS-CBN Film Productions, Reality Entertainment, Star Cinema Productions, and XYZ Films. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA Entertainment. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Filipino spoken language release with English subtitles available (there is no English-dubbed track). As for the technical specifications … wow! This is an exceedingly well-made film, and the highest quality sight and sounds have been used to bring it all to life with some impressive if not moderately depressing cinematography. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that actor Joel Torre won the “Best Actor” award and the film took home the Jury’s Choice Award for Feature Film at the 2013 Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. If it’s special features you’re looking for, then they’ve ponied up a short (6 min.) making-of short along with a few deleted scenes (nothing special) and the theatrical trailer: I, for one, would’ve liked quite a bit more.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. One of the lessons foreign films have taught me over the last year is that, despite what some of us might think, there are still plenty of terrific stories to be told about a life of crime. ON THE JOB is exactly the kind of film I suspect will get an American remake sometime in the next few years. Who knows? It might even get directed by Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo Dicaprio or whoever Marty’s latest muse might be. It might even rack up a dozen Academy Award nominations. But – pardon my jaundiced view of things – that remake will never match the intensity of the original precisely because the story – its themes and environs – is the kind that lends itself more credibly to non-Western civilization.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of ON THE JOB by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.