Crime and corruption runs rampant in the Philippines, according to Erik Matti’s On the Job. Inspired by real-life events, the film traces the outrageously illegal activities of an unholy mixture of political and military authorities, who conspired to release prisoners on leave so they could cary out contract killings.
It sounds too awful to be true, but in the hands of Matti and company, it’s all too convincing. Structured as an action thriller, the film follows two parallel storylines that keep colliding against with one another with increasingly violent results. Francis Coronel Jr. (Piolo Pascual) is a rising star in the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), a branch of the Department of Justice. He’s aware that his rise is due, at least in part, to his father-in-law, a powerful politician. When Francis is assigned to take over the homicide investigation of a police officer, he butts heads with Sergeant Acosta (Joey Marquez), a local detective who is fed up with continued corruption in (and interference from ) high levels of government. Acosta is aware of Francis’ connections; for his part, Francis ignores his nagging conscience, telling himself that he’s doing so for the sake of his wife Nicky.
Meanwhile, in prison, the aging Tatang (Joel Torre) begins the process of training a promising young inmate in the ways of trained assassins, giving him counsel in dealing with the prison guards, who facilitate their frequent one-day releases in and out of the secured facilities. as well their “middleman.” a dispassionate woman named Thelma. The killers enjoy fringe benefits not accorded other prisoners in the overly crowded facilities — money, chiefly, but also time to spend with their families — so Tatang is none too happy when he learns that his ‘contract assassin’ days will come to a close as soon as he is paroled. His earnings have made it possible for his daughter to pay tuition and attend law school, and also give money to his wife on a regular basis. If Tatang is unhappy, his wife is doubly so.
Using the homicide investigation as a fulcrum to examine Filipino society, Matti provides an eye-opening look that is none too appealing. The gulf between the rich and the poor is stark; Tatang’s family lives in exceedingly modest surroundings that are threadbare at best, in a vast neighborhood that seems to encompass half the city. Among the rich and powerful, ordering executions appears to be second nature, a handy method to eliminate opponents and other distractions from the real job: running the country.
The idea of putting the job first also dictates the conduct of the inmates who carry out the cold-blooded murders. As the “middleman” explains to Tatang, convicts never turn down jobs; they have no choice, plus they need the money. In such desperate straits, they never cause any trouble. They’re the perfect stool pigeons, except they can be used over and over again because the corrupt prison system, from the wardens on down, covers up all incriminating evidence.
It all sounds rather depressing, but Matti juices things up by staging the street killing sequences with great verve and ambition. That lends verisimilitude and authenticity, cinematic as it sounds and plays, to a film that is rife with anger about the society and system of government that not only tolerates, but encourages such corruption and criminality.
The film made its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin. It opens in select theaters on Friday, September 27.