Intense is an understatement.
Buybust is a commentary of the government’s bloody drug war. It is a beautifully crafted intense, gritty, and brutal story worthy of inclusion in the best action movies this side of town.
As always, a spoiler warning is in order.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Buybust follows in the footsteps set by movies such as Raid: Redemption, Dredd, and to some extent the earlier Die Hard films.
The movie is set in modern day Philippines and focuses on a particular drug lord ruling the slums of Manila, with a team of narcotics agent tasked to set-up a buy bust operation to take down this drug ring.
From the opening scenes the movie already creates this somewhat suffocating, intense story with the close-up shots on the characters as well as the use of the shaky cam. The opening scene also establishes the lengths that the narcotic team is willing to go just to get the head honcho, with the low-level drug dealer (Teban) being beat up and possibly tortured in the process. This further reinforced with the use of psychological/mental torture employed by Agent Dela Cruz.
As thing progress, we are then introduced to the main characters, Manigan (Curtis), Yatco (Vera), Elia (Muhlach), and their other teammates, together with teamleader Lacson (Neri), during their training camp. From the get-go, we see that Manigan has that rebellious streak when she disobeys one of Lacson’s orders.
At this juncture, the movie does a good job of introducing the individual attitudes of the team and gives us a glimpse of what they are all about, especially Manigan.
As the team moves on from training camp, they are instantly called to execute the operation to bring down the drug cartel. This, mind you, with three rookies in their ranks (more on that later).
What follows from this point on is a series of moves, counter-moves and counter-counter-moves. A clear sense that the planned operation is going down the drain is imminent as the team starts to get antsy and unsure with the operation, especially without back-up. Litlle does everyone know, that inkling feeling is real.
The moment the team steps inside the slums, the tension increases exponentially with all the uncontrolled variables. Everything goes down the drain when one of the drug lords’s men, Manok (Gamboa) informs Chongki (Ignacio) that its a setup. What follows is a bloody exhange resulting to deaths left and right.
This results to one of the most brutal, glorious, epic action sequences in Philippine cinema history.
The mood and setting was really top notch in this movie. The way the whole movie was shot is worthy of praise. From the suffocatingly close-up shots, to the shaky cam, to the beautiful establishing shots, and the dimly lighted set pieces, there really is little to complain about. Although the one thing that was frustrating about the camera work was the handling of a few fight scenes, while it does show that gritty, Bourne-esque flair, the choreography would have been served better had the action sequences been shot clearer.
Another item that stood out was the ambient sounds. While Manigan and company followed Dela Cruz’ team inside the slum area, we can hear all the ambient sounds coming from the shanties, with one shanty singing via karaoke, and the other having a couple fighting, and so on. Conversations are also picked-up at the middle, making it an authentic feel.
Speaking of authenticity, there is that authentic feel that all of these things are actually happening within that area. The abundance of people, the tight alleyways, even the flooding, all create that authentic feel.
The pacing of the movie is also worth mentioning. The moments of exposition were beautifully ingrained in the grand scheme of things. The fact that we learn about Bernie Lacson (team leader) and Alda Lacson were married and have a kid was not forced. The way we learned about Manigan’s former team and their demise likewise felt natural. The inclusion of Dela Cruz and his history with Manigan’s team also created that animosity between them, although just previously alluded to before the big reveal. It just shows that these characters have a backstory worth telling and just making the viewers relate to them more.
The acting is also worthy of mention. Victor Neri brings gravita to his role as a new team leader who appears in over his head. His inner struggle of leading his team and his actions just shows his lack of experience leading a team. The bittersweet way the Lacsons died was also one of those iconic moments that tugs on your heart. Curtis also owned her role as Manigan, her inner turmoil and demons were apparent. She delivered a performance that makes the audience root for her. However, Brandon Vera clearly stole the show. The MMA fighter displayed his acting chops and in every scene he was in, he delivered. The fact that Vera was raised in USA and had little to no experience in speaking Tagalog prior to the movie was convincing in his role with how fluent he speaks Tagalog, add that to the fact that he has to act, its just amazing. AJ Atayde, Joross Gamboa, and Levi Ignacio were also astounding as the villains in the movie. The trio avoided the common trope of campy villains, bit instead delivered unhinged villains that somehow still made sense. Just really no issues when it comes to casting choices.
The fight scenes are reminiscent of the heart-pounding, bare-knuckles, scenes from Raid: Redemption and Daredevil. The choreography, while a little noticeable in a few scenes, where top-notch. The long continuous shot of Manigan parkouring/fighting in a small compound was indeed a highlight. The cramped fighting scene wherein Yatco bulldozed his way through enemies while wading through water is also worthy of mention.
Kicking well established tropes of the genre was also a welcome sight. In all the survival action flicks I’ve seen, there is always that one scene where the heroes would ask for help and someone would save them or give them a short reprieve. In Buybust, once a bystander started talking to Manigan and Yatco and offered his cellular phone, I honestly said “uh-oh, cliche”, but it was a welcome surprise that that was not the case. The movie also kicks the common action movie trope of the Philippines, the one with the long or overdrawn bantering between enemies in between shooting guns. Not to mention the trope that women in Philippine movies are the damsels in distress.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
On the surface, there really were no glaring plot holes. Honestly, I subsribe to the saying that a movie is good if the audience does not notice plot holes while watching the movie. While watching the movie, there honestly were no plot holes, however once I thought about it after watching, there were a few plot holes.
The biggest plot hole here is the plot why would Dela Cruz even have to accompany the team to the buybust. A bent/crooked cop would not even stand that close to a setup, but not here. So what’s the purpose?
The other thing that I had an issue with was the shaky cam, as mentioned earlier. The tight shots, while essential to convey mood, were unnecessary especially when coupled with shaky cam and hand to hand combat. Also, when one of the agents (Hizon) was being dogpiled by Chongki’s men and the exchange of bullets were transpiring, it was a headache trying to differentiate who was shooting who.
Lastly, I had a bone to pick with the inclusion of Teban. His character was really unnecessary aside from ratting on Chongki and Biggie Chen. His addition during the intense moments were really for comedic relief, but I would have rather had him removed from the equation as the intensity of some scenes were diluted due to his comedic lines. It removed the gravity of the sequences.
Other than that, there really isn’t any big or major concerns with this movie.
Throughout the movie, Buybust tackled some of the more controversial issues in the Philippines. The drug war, the media coverage, the corruption, the collateral damage, and the all too familiar excuse “nanlaban” or otherwise known as the perp fought back.
In an all too familiar scene, Buybust tackled the mandate of the police in fighting crime, particularly resolving the drug problems that plague the Philippines. It showed how the police are dedicated to bring justice and accomplish their mandate and mission. It shows the camaraderie and anxiety that comes with the territory. The movie does a good job at depicting how cops should really act in times of battling crime, but it also does a great job at showing how crooked cops really play the system. The fact that corrupt cops abound in the movie is a testament also to the current state of Philippine politics, where people have agendas, and bigger people have bigger agendas.
The fact that there were three rookie PDEA cops assigned to the buybust would have been a glaring plot hole, had it not for the fact that that group had been setup. It made sense that should there have been a double-cross, the best people to be caught in the crossfire would be a team with the least experience from the team leader down to the lowest level. That in itself shows just how ruthless the corrupt officials were in setting up the police.
The way the media was depicted also spoke volumes on the current state of the Philippines. The media focuses all too much on working with the government in pacifying the collateral damage in the drug wars, and instead chooses to cover the losses of the government. The fact that there were more than the 13 policemen who were killed when you count the bystanders and the passers by in the movie, and the media only reported the 13 deaths shows that the media has indeed chose to be biased in favor of the government’s drug war.
To top it all off, the all too common excuse of the perpetrator fighting back against the policemen while in their custody shows just how the corrupt officials, the police to some extent, and the media all work together to paint a one-sided picture of the truth, making this film one for the ages not only because of the action and set pieces, but also because of the message it wishes to convey. Whether the message was received is another thing altogether.
Buybust is a tension-filled action movie that delivers big on the action, set pieces, acting, and also delivers a powerful message.
The Gladiators give it a 5/5
Buybust is directed by critically acclaimed director Erik Matti, and stars Anne Curtis, Victor Neri, and Brandon Vera, to name a few.
Do you agree with our review? If no, feel free to chime in and tell us why not. If yes, we still encourage you to tell us why. Don’t worry, we don’t bite.
Gino is the Gladiators’ resident TV and comicbook aficionado. He is Matt Murdock by profession in the day, without the vigilante crime fighting at night. He believes that the lightsaber is the best weapon during a zombie apocalypse.