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On the Job: Cannes Review

On the Job Cannes Directors Fortnight Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Caustically cynical thriller-from-Manila drags during dialogue, soars in action.

Venue

Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)

Gerald Anderson, Joel Torre and Piolo Pascual star in Erik Matti's Filipino crime-drama, premiering in the Directors' Fortnight section of the festival.

A likably rough-edged hitmen-vs.-cops thriller from the Philippines, On the Job ranks among Cannes 2013's more straightforwardly commercial world premieres. Its debut in the eclectic Directors' Fortnight sidebar marks the biggest international exposure yet for director Erik Matti, whose muscular handling of fast-paced action sequences consistently impresses. Downtime between these set-pieces tends to drag, however, and while domestic audiences might be lured by local heartthrobs Gerald Anderson and Piolo Pascual, overseas this is primarily late-night festival fare. During Cannes, Well Go USA purchased North American distribution rights and announced a fall release for a film with reasonable small-screen potential. 

Matti, recently lined up for horror portmanteau The ABCs of Death 2, has compiled a lively filmography over the past decade or so, averaging roughly a film a year. Perhaps best known for 2004's low-tech Spider-Man spoof Gigamboy, which eked out a certain cultish following, he teams up here with scriptwriter Michiko Yamamoto -- responsible for Auraeus Solito's widely-traveled, gay-themed, award-laden Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros (2005).

Their story, "inspired by true events," as per the opening titles, hinges on a nifty concept that could well find its way into an English-language remake: a high-level cabal of political insiders employs long-term prison inmates as assassins. The two killers we follow, veteran Mario -- aka Tatang (Joel Torre) -- and his twenty-something apprentice Daniel (Anderson), don't seem to spend very long "inside," and indeed can carry on reasonably 'normal' lives when they aren't cooling their heels behind bars.

"This is just work ... nothing personal," Mario informs the wide-eyed Daniel, observing that the kid is becoming a bit too intoxicated by the high-adrenaline life of a professional hitman. The mentor/pupil relationship is mirrored, in time-honored policier fashion, on the other side of the law by principled cop Acosta (Joey Marquez) and his protege, well-connected and model-handsome high-flyer Francis (Pascual.) Francis is tipped for high office as a law-enforcer, lawmaker and perhaps even more, but he soon realizes that the Philippines' justice system's endemic corruption presents him with a thorny dilemma.

Matti and Yamamoto aren't reinventing any wheels here, and many of the dialogue scenes operate on a functionally prosaic level. On the Job takes off into a different stratosphere, however, when the emphasis is on visuals and movement, editor Jay Halil and cinematographer Francis Ricardo Buhay III combining to sock over fast-paced pulse-quickeners that make fine use of disparate locations.

Scenes in the prison have a pungently atmospheric immediacy, including one outstanding tracking-shot that follows the genially swaggering Daniel as he struts his way from block to block. Resembling a scruffy Pinoy cousin of Jesse Bradford here, the half-American, Texas-raised Anderson shows genuine screen appeal as the loose-cannon Daniel, and could be an intriguing addition to a Stateside action franchise such as The Fast and the Furious.

MVP, however, is music supervisor Erwin Romulo, who collaborated with the Philippines' king of marathon minimalism Lav Diaz on a recent documentary and whose day-job is as editor of the Philippines' Esquire magazine. Romulo delivers a poundingly propulsive series of rock-flavored cuts, many featuring the band Bent Lynchpin, that represent the otherwise straight-arrow On the Job's most audacious and rewarding creative gambits.

Venue:  Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production companies:  Reality Entertainment
Cast:  Gerald Anderson, Joel Torre, Piolo Pascual, Joey Marquez
Director/Producer:  Erik Matti
Screenwriters:  Erik Matti, Michiko Yamamoto
Director of photography:  Francis Ricardo Buhay III
Production designer:  Richard V. Somes
Editor:  Jay Halili
Music:  Erwin Romulo
Sales:  XYZ, Marina del Rey
No MPAA rating, 121 minutes