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‘BuyBust’ review: Mind-searing desperation and damnation in the hellish slums of Manila

Erik Matti’s ‘BuyBust’ could just be the catalyst in the second coming of Philippine action films.

Looking at Erik Matti’s acclaimed body of work (2013’s On The Job and 2015’s Honor Thy Father), it’s safe to say that violence has always been a driving force in his brand of filmmaking. Whereas social media can easily desensitize netizens from topical issues, a heightened sense of violence in movies should arrest their attention and restore back their empathy. With a body count that rivals a Game of Thrones episode, BuyBust is clearly a film on violence in the form of extrajudicial killings.

Interestingly, the film puts you in an odd position as you find yourself rooting for the cops committing murderous acts. Still, it strikes a balance as no character, down to its bit players, gets an untarnished moral compass. No side is demonized to a fault… right up until that blindsiding and chilling finale where Matti reveals that he has not taken a neutral stance all along. He makes a bold statement and takes no prisoners with it. Whether you agree with him or not is one thing, but having huge balls to speak your mind is another thing. The result is quite impressive.

Anne Curtis as PDEA police officer Nina Manigan. Photo via Viva Films and Reality Entertainment.

BuyBust is mostly told in the perspective of police officer Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), a rookie in supervisor Bernie Lacson’s (Victor Neri) elite anti-narcotic squad. She’s a lone survivor who has developed a cynical and untrusting attitude after her old squad was betrayed by a mystery figure named ‘Judas’. This time, her new team’s assignment is to apprehend a drug lord named Biggie Chen (another mystery name that will be thrown around) and soon they find themselves walking blindly into the den of Gracia ni Maria. It’s the most dangerous place in Manila and one character affirms it: “when hell was unleashed, all evil decided to live there.”

Nina’s gut instinct starts screaming that this might be a suicide mission and she’s right. Once they realized that they are being set up, the squad’s objective changes from entrapment to purely survival. They have a limited ammo supply, a signal jammer prevents them from calling a backup and a Judas hides among their flanks. In a Nat Geo Wild twist of events, the hunter becomes the hunted.

Lacson’s Alpha squad (L-R): Gelo Elia (AJ Muhlach), Loren Santos (Mara Lopez), Iggy Hizon (Tarek El Tayech), Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis). Photo via Viva Films and Reality Entertainment. 

Name the worst things you can think in Tondo, Manila and you will find it here. Claustrophobic shanties, flooded alleyways, dangling live wires – Gracia ni Maria is a breathing labyrinth of nightmare. Mix in a moody cinematography that juxtaposes gloom and neon lights, the air of dread and desperation only becomes more ominous. And as if being stuck in an unfamiliar environment is not a disadvantage enough, the residents, who are always treated as collateral damage in drug raids, starts fighting against our police squad too.

Guns start blazing and knives starts swinging. In addition, garden hoses, water basins, cactuses, you name it, anything that they can grab onto can also be weaponized (and when there’s nothing in sight, good ol’ trusty knuckles and teeth will suffice). Crazed and unorganized hordes of people swarm up from every nook and corner. Matti said it best during an interview, “this is a zombie film without zombies.” BuyBust is a cardio exercise that won’t back down anytime soon.

Alpha Squad in training (L-R): Loren Santos (Mara Lopez), Gelo Elia (AJ Muhlach), Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera). Photo via Viva Films and Reality Entertainment.

Working on confined spaces, injecting creativity in close quarter combats is no easy task but Matti goes above and beyond in ratcheting the suspense when it mattered the most. He employs elaborate choreography and tons of practical effects – a gorgeous shot of moon-lit smoke permeating inside a room comes to the mind. When it comes to the brawl, street fights are supposed to be messy and the action here is reality-grounded, free from any Jackie Chan level of martial arts. Not everything here is perfect. I had personal gripes on some action pieces that were too much reliant on shaky cams and quick cuts, especially on the first half. Plus, a loud musical scoring often dilutes the sound of gunfire and grunts.

Amidst the chaos, Curtis, reportedly with no stunt doubles, stands tall as the local scene’s top femme fatale to beat. There’s that much-touted three-minute continuous shot of her fending off enemies while scaling up and down on the slums. This could have been the toughest sequence ever shot in Philippine cinema, an astonishing feat that deserves huge accolades. Woot!

On the other hand, you may cast doubts on Curtis’ credibility when it comes to delivering body slams but MMA fighter Brandon Vera, in his movie debut as the burly Rico Yatco owns every ounce of action he’s in. He superkicks crooks like they’re a bunch of kittens. He channels his inner King Kong and lifts people and motorcycles up in the air. He cuts off a woman’s head using a huge pair of garden shears. Still, the guy maintains a likable screen presence. The supporting cast however, fared less and comes out as thinly-written characters. Not that the film needs to delve more on them but it should’ve done more effort for the viewers to genuinely care for their survival. There are some standouts though like the ones played by Alex Calleja and Arjo Atayde.

Facing off the residents of Gracia Ni Maria. Photo via Viva Films and Reality Entertainment.

BuyBust, on a surface level, is a game changer that hopefully will be the catalyst in the second coming of Philippine action films. As the film reaches its climax, what is marketed as a blockbuster action film turns into an unapologetic political film teeming with social commentary. The shot ends with a God’s eye view of Tondo, looking like a chessboard with heaps of corpses left in the wake of the war. The message becomes clear. The epic monstrosity we just witnessed is just a small scale of what we live in. We are all pawns to a system that is bigger than all of us. The true height of films is in their ability to provoke thoughts and sear them in one’s mind. BuyBust gets the job done.


4.5 out of 5 stars


Produced by Reality Entertainment, co-produced and distributed by Viva Films, BuyBust is now showing in PH cinemas starring Anne Curtis, Brandon Vera, Victor Neri, Arjo Atayde, Levi Ignacio, Nonie Buencamino, Lao Rodriguez, Alex Calleja, Joross Gamboa, Sheenly Gener, Mara Lopez, AJ Muhlach, Tarek El Tayech, Maddie Martinez, Ricky Pascua, Nafa Hilario, Ian Ignacio and Mikey Alcaraz. Directed by Erik Matti and written by Anton Santamaria and Erik Matti. Run time: 127 minutes.

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