One of Metro Manila’s most politically-connected prisons has one heck of a work-release program. Periodically, they send out two convicts to execute a gangland-style hit and after a spot of shopping both are safely back inside before anyone is the wiser. However, a botched assignment and a troublesome cop will create headaches for the elites pulling the strings in Erik Matti’s On the Job (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Evidently, murder for hire beats making license plates. Ever since Mario “Tatang” Maghari went to prison, he has provided for his family better than ever before. He only sees them occasionally, showing up “on leave” from his vaguely defined work out-of-town. His daughter is starting to get suspicious, but says nothing. After all, her father has paid her law school tuition.
While each job is strictly business for Maghari, his new partner, Daniel Benitez, appreciates their intensity, like a form of extreme sports. Frankly, Maghari has misgivings about Benitez, but with his parole approaching he must groom a successor. He genuinely likes the kid, but he constantly reminds Benitez nobody can afford sentimentality in their world. When Benitez finally takes the lead on a job, it turns out disastrously. It was not entirely his fault, but he and Maghari still have to make it right quickly. To do so, they will tangle with Francis Coronel, Jr., an ambitious cop, whose career track has been greased by his congressman father-in-law.
When Maghari and Benitez go after their hospitalized target, OTJ deliberately echoes John Woo’s Hard Boiled, but where the Hong Kong crime epic was slick and operatic, Matti’s film is gritty and pure street. It is a massive action spectacle, but rendered on a scrupulously human scale. Every blow hurts like it ought to, because no one is superhuman.
Yet, Matti is just getting started. He and co-screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto paint a scathing portrait of a legal justice system rife with corruption. They are working on a large scale canvas, where complicated family history and political alliances will profoundly impact all the players. While the themes of loyalty and betrayal will be familiar to mob movie junkies, Matti gives them a fresh spin. The distinctive sense of place also sets OTJ well apart from the field. Viewers will practically smell the B.O. during the scenes set in the sweltering but bizarrely informal prison.
A radical departure from Matti’s clinically cold erotic drama Rigodon (which screened at this year’s NYAFF), OTJ seamlessly combines genre thrills with a naturalistic aesthetic, but Joel Torre is the lynchpin holding it all together. Not just a hard-nosed action figure (although he is certainly that), Torre fully expresses the acute pain of Maghari’s tragic failings, born of his violent circumstances. The entire ensemble is completely convincing, but OTJ is truly his show.