Erik Matti’s BuyBust is almost great. As it is, it’s a solid actioner, especially for those of us who favor the gritty, down-and-dirty style usually relegated to the direct-to-video realm. Especially rough around the edges and chaotic, and full of weird-as-hell flourishes, it’s mean and violent and bleak as hell—be prepared for beheadings and morally questionable dirty deeds American movies shy away from. Matti and company offer a non-stop buffet of tension and potential disaster for the stars, all wrapped in an intriguing commentary on the current state of Philippines society and the draconian drug war under Duterte.
BuyBust falls into a similar category with films like The Raid and Dredd. The story follows an elite police tactical unit fronted by Nani Manigan (Anne Curtis), who’s previous team was slaughtered thanks to a departmental leak, and Rico Yatco (MMA fighter Brandon Vera), the team hard-ass. Based on potentially compromised intel, they venture into a labyrinthine, drug-lord-controlled Manila slum after notorious kingpin Biggie Chen. Things don’t go their way and before long, they have to fight their way out through vicious goons and angry residents. It’s a contained narrative, both physically and time wise, unfolding over the course of a single night in a single place.
Matti and cinematographer Neil Bion shoot a great deal in close up. When the cops weave their way through the tight, improvised corridors of the shanty town, breathlessly searching for their quarry, their fellows, and a way out, this works well. The pressing walls, the close framing, the closing-in walls of the slum, create a claustrophobic sensation that ratchets up the tension. It offers a great setting to unleash frantic, anarchic bursts of action.
But while heavy on the grim, dark atmosphere, and with no discernable lack of hyperactivity, the staging of said action admittedly often leaves much to be desired. Too many of the fight scenes wind up hacked to bits, edited to the brink of incoherence. And it’s not because the people involved don’t know what they’re doing—their skill is apparent, especially Vera, though Curtis and the others can more than handle themselves. But instead of letting them do their thing, the action too often winds up a mixed jumble. After the continual increase of pressure, they don’t quite offer the cathartic release they promise.
A few of the action beats do deliver badass highs, including one bonkers single-shot long-take—because every action movie needs one—where the camera soars through the tightly packed slum, that borders on spectacular. They’re not bad, and far from the most egregious offenses I’ve encountered, but for the most part, they never quite live up to the obvious potential they contain. Watching them, it’s difficult not to dwell on what could have been.
For all the grit and grime, BuyBust is also a deeply strange film, full of off-kilter, unexpected embellishments, some of which are just head-scratchingly odd. There’s a key villain who wears leopard-print pants and another who lounges in a bathrobe and flip flops. We get a typical dark, droning, intense-sounding action-movie score, but it also contains quirky music choices that shouldn’t work but do. For instance, a reverb-drenched, pseudo-surf track that plays during a tense, climactic faceoff. It inches to the brink of cartoon silliness, but still delivers the goods. The film is full of similar peculiarities.
BuyBust’s larger message—about corruption on all sides, about the brutal tactics the government uses, and the futility of it all—often gets heavy-handed. The point is so woven into the plot that the overt moralizing is also entirely unnecessary. Showing how the cops and criminals share a symbiotic relationship and wreak havoc on the downtrodden populace—it’s like watching a war between two invasive, colonizing forces while the locals pay the heaviest price—than drives home that objective in a much more effective way.
BuyBust offers action fans a solid, raw genre adventure. Messy and blunt, cynical and bleak, Erik Matti’s film checks off most of the items on our wish list. There’s promise and intrigue that it never fully delivers on, but if you’re looking for a blast of gonzo international action with a mean streak, you can do much worse. [Grade: B]