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Buy Bust
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by Jay Seaver

"A ferocious shootout of a movie that may almost be too action-packed."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Erik Matti's war-on-drugs action piece fits squarely in the category of Films That Do Not Mess Around, marrying the non-stop combat of Dante Lam's "Operation Mekong" series with a harsh cynicism about the use of force on display. It makes for the sort of orgy of violence that challenges the viewer to be horrified by what's going on even if decades of watching action movies has conditioned us to primarily be impressed at just how well Matti and his crew stage the second half.

First, though, it's time to introduce the players: First, Rudy Dela Cruz, an officer in the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, and his superior have captured and turned Teban, who will lead them to drug lord Biggie Chen. Then there's the new squad of grunts who will be providing backup: Lacson has just been promoted to team leader, and he's already worried about Nani Manigan (Anne Curtis), who was the only one to survive her last team being betrayed and massacred, and who, during training, points out that sometimes following orders can get a cop killed. She's part of a tight unit with Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera), a confident mountain of a man, and Elia, the most hesitant. When Biggie and his lieutenants move the deal that the PDEA intends to bust to the poor neighborhood of Gracia ni Maria at the last minute, Manigan worries it's a trap, and she's not wrong: Biggie's lieutenant Chungki has the whole area sealed off, executes an old man to set the population to riot, and declares open season on the cops.

And, oh, yeah, it's a downpopur, which means the isolated neighborhood is going to flood, adding yet another layer of hellishness to the whole thing. Though Matti primarily has the film take the perspective of law enforcement, its three acts in many ways are an escalating demonstration of how using the police as a blunt, militaristic tool becomes more disastrous at every step: It seems easy enough during training, and they initially seem like a well-oiled machine while executing the initial plan in what seems like a fairly middle-class quarter. This middle section is almost boring, with a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, although it starts to hint at what will soon be the film's greatest source of tension, with heavily-armed cops placed in the middle of unsuspecting crowds, certainly inviting one to imagine what could go wrong.

It goes wrong in incredible fashion not long after they arrive in Gracia ni Maria, with a rapid escalation to it being a full war zone. Matti and his crew walk a very fine line between maintaining the same perspective and how they are besieged from all sides without dehumanizing the civilians, and they sometimes find themselves tilted far to the cops' side, as is only natural; the audience has spent some time getting to know them, and showing how the police get into an us-versus-the world mentality, especially when the bullets start flying. They occasionally slow down so that they can explicitly say that the poor people in these neighborhoods, especially, don't see the police as allies but just one of two groups shooting it out near their homes, and as numbers are winnowed down, there's a bit more clarity on how fighting civilians is not what they signed up for, even if they are reduced to the brutal survival mode of stabbing anyone in their way.

This feels miserable at times, but it's also undeniable that Matti, his cast, and his crew put together some amazing action. Much of it is so brutal and directed at civilians that audiences will likely find themselves leery, but there are bits that are flat-out amazing, with Matti able to balance the chaos with keeping the audience very cognizant of things that can't necessarily be shown directly, such as what is going on over and under rooftops and where people are positioned on the opposite sides of walls which can be easily blasted through. There's a pretty astounding sequence that involves rooftops, streets, and water that sure looks like a long take, and it's not the only spot where Anne Curtis shows herself as an action actress to be reckoned with.

She's good generally, mostly playing a variation on the no-nonsense cop with a chip on her shoulder who barely trusts anyone, not even other officers, with some of her best moments coming when others assure Manigan that she's not a jink, her face having just enough worry that this may be true to offset the more rational "don't try and make me blame myself for what happened to me" attitude. Often the smallest person in an action scene, she dives into them with confidence but also shows a clear understanding that she may be physically outclassed, adding nervousness to her intensity. It makes for an interesting contrast with Brandon Vera, a Vin Diesel-looking hunk of muscle who gives the filmmakers the chance to break things up by going big once in a while (and has a bit of Dwayne Johnson-esque charm to boot).

By the time the film is over, there's been a lot of action, almost an exhausting amount, maybe enough to make one forget that the film is as much about this sort of violence being an overwhelming and destructive force rather than a way to purge the wicked. That keeps "BuyBust" from truly being brilliant, but there's no denying that it does extremely well trying to get there.

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originally posted: 07/20/18 02:55:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Erik Matti

Written by
  Erik Matti

  Anne Curtis
  Victor Neri
  Joross Gamboa
  Nonie Buencamino
  Brandon Vera
  Nafa Hilario-Cruz

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