Roaming about a street festival in Metro Manila’s Quezon City, Mario “Tatang” Maghari (Joel Torre) dons a straw hat and converses with a man who appears to be his son. Both characters are visibly strapped (with day bags) and visibly cautious; however, these men don’t live on the streets — the dressings are only part of an act. Tatang and Daniel (Gerald Anderson) live their daily lives in a more sequestered setting — jail — and receive an occasional one-day pass to carry out a most violent trade: murder for hire.
Based on real events, On the Job opens with graphic, eye-covering violence reminiscent of the brutal realism depicted in Gaspar Noé’s 2002 film Irreversible. Director Matti immediately establishes the urgency of his film and delivers a credits newsreel sequence that connects the city’s political corruption with drug-related crime.
Piolo Pascual plays Francis Coronel Jr., the son-in-law of a congressman (Michael de Mesa) and also a suave, 32-year-old NBI agent designated to investigate the street festival homicide. Coronel’s military background and family connections bring him face to face with General Pacheco (Leo Martinez), who reminds the young agent about the mysterious death of his father. As Coronel attempts to move forward with the investigation, an old-school sergeant (Joey Marquez) takes offense to his removal from the case and blames it on his political views. As Coronel works one side of the law and the young hit man Daniel works the other, the tension builds when a failed assassination attempt leads all to one central location — the hospital — where nobody is safe.
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While the narrative foundation of On the Job is rather simple (old school vs new school; hard work vs corruption), the cinematography of Ricardo Buhay III and Matti’s unique eye for striking visuals raise the stakes in building suspense. Thirty minutes in, Matti follows Daniel throughout the prison as the daily routines of inmates are brought to life. The extended single-shot reminds of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (bar introductions), and 30 minutes later, Matti swaps out the pounding hip-hop score for throbbing drums as the characters frantically attempt to search and destroy. It’s pure chaos, but the seasoned direction and slick editing moves the action along with precision.
Torre gives an unforgettable performance as the existential hitman Tatang, and Shaina Magdayao brings a strong (and beautiful) female presence as the loyal wife of Coronel. Although I wasn’t initially sure what to think of Pascual as the lead investigator, he brings a sense of innocence to the role, which is essential for the character’s sensibilities.
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On the Job explores violence both inside and outside the prison, and does so with intellect. The elderly hitman Tatang carries out his assignments in order to survive but also for a little extra family time. Meanwhile, his protege Daniel learns the troubling rules of the game just like the man on his trail. Matti shows no fear by destroying genre cliches in On the Job, and his wandering camera opens up the world of Metro Manila while expressing how utterly disposable humans can be under corrupt leadership.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.