Feeling conflicted about the War on Drugs? Erik Matti is about to raise even more concerns regarding the way it is prosecuted in the Philippines. It is surely no accident his latest film is one of several recent Filipino releases that calls into question the methods used to enforce justice in the Duterte era, but there is no time for politics in this action showcase. It is a kill-or-be-killed struggle to survive in Matti’s BuyBust (trailer here), which had its world premiere at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.
Nobody is more skeptical of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) top brass than Agent Nina Manigen. She is already the sole survivor of a disastrous operation that wiped out the rest of her previous squad. Even though she is considered a jinx, Bernie Lacson recruits her for his new squad. Unfortunately, their first field op bears a striking similarity to the notorious bust-gone-wrong Manigen barely survived. The idea is to grab the uber-protected drug kingpin Bennie Chen in mid-transaction, using Teban, a reluctantly cooperating narco middle man as bait. The operation needs to be fast and clean, because the entire walled off slum is under the control of the drug lord.
Alas, Lacson’s operation is betrayed by Judas, the same mole in the PDEA responsible for the massacre of Manigen’s first team. Trapped in the slum, Manigen and a handful of colleagues will have to fight pretty much everyone as they search for an escape.
Basically, BuyBust is like The Raid: Redemption, but set in a shanty village instead of a tenement. However, Matti’s film, considered his first straight-up action movie, is far grittier and fiercer. Frankly, the body count here is astronomical and many of the deaths are spectacularly brutal. Arguably, Manigen and her valiant colleague Rico Yatco qualify as heroes, but there is not a lot of heroism in the film. They do some grisly things to survive, but they do not have much choice.
Fans will probably be stunned by Anne Curtis’s steely, hardnosed action-turn as Manigen, but she truly reinvents herself here. It is hard to imagine just about any other glamorous leading lady who could duke it out so convincingly amid all this muck and detritus, including Atomic Blonde’s Charlize Theron (maybe Kim Ok-vin from The Villainess).
Yet, as Yatco, Brandon Vera is right there with her, every step of the way. In fact, they develop some terrific fighting chemistry together (but in a film like this, terms like “relationship” are meaningless). Victor Neri’s Lacson is also a seriously bad cat, while Alex Calleja steals a few scenes as the rather reasonable (and comparatively decent) Teban.