The Philippines gets their own “Infernal Affairs” with “On the Job,” a
propulsive new actioner. It’s not a remake of that
Hong Kong hit, but it features the same cops-and-criminals conflict and stock
moral ambiguity that turned that earlier film, and “The Departed,” into an
ethical funhouse mirror for its protagonists. And hey, the action isn’t bad
either. If you wanted a Filipino film from less-skilled filmmakers who worship
at the altar of Johnny To and Michael Mann, you could do worse.
The film’s deceptively simple twist is announced beforehand as we spend a
considerable amount of time with Tatang and Daniel, two hitmen who register
kills in broad daylight before heading back into their cells
at night. Yes, this is based on a true story: apparently prison inmates were
being used as traceless killers to erase liabilities for crooked cops and
politicians in the Philippines. It’s a great hook, and it’s sexed up by Joel
Torre and Gerald Anderson as the two gunmen in question. Torre, as the
grizzled, mature Tatang, is an ace with firearms, and the actor bears a strong
resemblance to a younger, cagier Joe Mantegna. Anderson, as young upstart
Daniel, is younger and prettier, a more ethnic (and infinitely more appealing)
version of Sam Worthington.
Tatang takes the lead in most assignments, with Daniel playing backup,
neutralizing any spontaneous threats. Tatang seeks retirement, and soon he’ll
be able to go home to his wife and college-age daughter. Daniel, with no family
of his own, is more ruthless: he strikes up a deceptively friendly relationship
with Tatang, his mentor. Tatang is smart enough to know that Daniel wants to be
the point man in future assignments. The light sketch character work done by
director Erik Matti reveals that Daniel’s endearing enthusiasm and affection
for Tatang is genuine, as is his financial desperation, sending bills home to
his own dying mother. It’s not exactly gripping tension at work, but it’s
The less-successful material belongs to Francis Colonel Jr., the young cop
who is marrying up the chain by getting engaged to the pretty daughter of a
superior. What he is soon stunned—stunned!—to know is that his
father-in-law and his fellow cronies are dirty, and they rig elections and
supervise drug deals and assassinations in their free time. It’s unclear why
these guys wouldn’t vet anyone this girl dates, and why his steadfast
principles are such a surprise, but this is the nature of plot contrivance:
just join everyone in media res, and let these philosophies clash.
Colonel’s main interest soon becomes Tatang and Daniel, who seem to
disappear and reappear from their jail bunks with only a few people
half-heartedly asking questions. This puts him in direct conflict with his
bosses, but surely there’s got to be a more legal way, right? This conflict is
captured accurately by the casting: the police bigwigs are older, more
weathered types. But Colonel is played by the boyishly handsome Piolo Pascual.
When he busts into an action scene, it looks like he’s ready for a fashion
catalog. When you think “Filipino action movie” you don’t really think
beefcake, but Pascual and Anderson have definite cross-cultural sex appeal.
Would anyone really quarrel if Anderson, with his easy smile and bedroom eyes,
replaced Sam Worthington in the next “Avatar”?
The workmanlike precision of “On the Job” carries through to its action
scenes, none of which are shot with any flash or style, but are edited with a
propulsive pace and performed by a watchable cast enough to make them engaging.
The true story is inherently compelling, but director Matti can never seem to
use the real-life case, or these cop tropes, to mine for any deeper truth.
What’s left is a particularly colorful procedural, one with slightly
interesting shades, from the transsexual prison wing where Daniel is ogled and
worshipped to Tatang’s possibly unfaithful wife pretending to honor her
husband’s dubious legal arrangement. It’s a dish that you’ve tasted before, but
maybe this extra seasoning will prevent déjà vu. [B-]