Filipino action film is solid, samey
BuyBust is trying really hard; and eventually it wins you over.
While this Filipino action film, set almost entirely at night and in the rain, definitely suffers from paying such clear homage to Indonesia’s The Raid in both plot and adrenaline levels… the sincere effort and entertaining result ultimately pans out and even manages to stand out a bit from its influences.
Director Erik Matti has broken out into the international market in a way that the vast majority of modern Filipino film has not. Bringing On The Job, a police thriller, to Western audiences in 2013, he’s been cranking out roughly a film a year and now presents us with BuyBust, a film tailor made for international breakout appeal. He’s cast Anne Curtis (described in this Blu-ray’s bonus features as somewhat of a Filipino princess, known by literally everyone in the country as an A-list starlet) as the badass lead and MMA champion Brandon Vera in his first major film role. Tough female leads are very trendy right now and MMA stars are increasingly breaking out into action cinema even as their sport’s profile continues to rise. Matti seems to have gauged the cultural moment and crafted something that had all the right ingredients for a breakout hit. At times it really feels like that kind of calculation is going into the final film here; more product than engaging story. But the sheer will and effort to finish that product can’t be ignored.
Curtis plays Nina Manigan, a SWAT-type drug enforcement officer who is training with a new team of elite cops after her last crew was massacred in a botched raid from which she was the only survivor. She’s detached, mournful, and more than a little skeptical of her superiors who are sending this new team in to bring down another drug kingpin. There are quite a few characters established on either side of the law and BuyBust takes its time to get around to the blistering action. This effort felt somewhat wasted, as is sometimes the case in slasher movies, as these characters all feel like they’re being set up only to be violently dispatched. And that turns out to be true. Where The Raid felt like its barebones premise was JUST enough story to map out a non-stop action thrill ride, BuyBust feels like it doesn’t ever quite walk that tightrope quite as dexterously. The Raid was contained in one building. BuyBust traps our special forces team inside of a dangerous Filipino slum. It’s a little more chaotic and confusing than The Raid. This is likely intentional, but doesn’t always succeed. Regardless, before too long, Manigan and Yatco (Vera’s giant of a cop) are on the run and trapped in a sprawling slum with dealers, double crossers, and angry civilians all looking to take their lives before they can find their way out.
There’s another film I haven’t mentioned yet that undoubtedly colored my caveat-filled reaction to BuyBust. I happen to have seen, this year, no less, another Filipino action film starring a tough and gorgeous female lead fighting her way out of a seemingly unwinnable situation over the course of one long, horrific night. Director Richard Somes’ We Will Not Die Tonight (starring Erich Gonzalez) was a film I caught during its run at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, and man… are these two films extremely similar. There’s no doubt that BuyBust is the superior of these two, but when you compare each of them to their inspiration, they both come up lacking and a bit of samey-ness really starts creeping into one’s evaluation of the final product. Then add into this environment Netflix’s upcoming The Night Comes For Us (in which one guy fights against a horde of enemies in violent hand-to-hand combat) which stars many of the cast members of the Raid franchise and actually manages to be something new/different, and maybe even occasionally bigger and bolder than anything in the Raid films, one realizes that the market is a little flooded and competition is fierce.
Do I mind living in a world where The Raid, one of the greatest action films in the history of the genre, has inspired look-alikes and raised the bar for action cinema forever? No. It’s a marvelous time to be alive as an action fan. It’s just that so many of these follow ups wear their influence right on their sleeve, and come up somewhat lacking.
Having established all that, let me go ahead and say that BuyBust is ultimately pretty fun and those involved in creating it should be proud. Curtis clearly does a ton of her own fight work, and while it occasionally looks a little balletic or choreographed, it goes a LONG way when seeing the real leads doing all their own fights. Towards the end there’s a massive 3-minute-long single take in which Curtis is fighting, climbing, and crashing through a rainy set. Bonus features tell me it took 50+ takes over 3 days to capture this single shot. That’s insane! And it’s a fun shot that all should take pride in, especially Curtis. Brandon Vera (someone I’d never heard of as I don’t follow MMA) also really breaks out as a talent I’d be interested in following. He’s got a great bruiser look and had some major standout moments of badassery in the film. BuyBust ultimately succeeds most when its two leads are back to back and kicking ass. Once all the fat is trimmed away and these two are just fighting for their lives, the movie begins to hum.
After the fact, listening to the bonus features and hearing Matti and others discuss their film, it occurred to me that the Filipino origins of the film were a little more integral to the heart of the story than I’d initially allowed. As a Raid clone, it never rises above. But as a uniquely Filipino film, BuyBust does make some commentary on the rampant police corruption and internationally infamous drug wars being waged in that country under President Rodrigo Duterte’s notorious rule. Human life is devalued in the political power struggle that Duterte and the cartels are engaged in. Civilians are a major part of BuyBust in a way that’s unique. You’re uncomfortable watching these embattled cops occasionally having to fight and even kill angry mobs of civilians who have taken to the streets and are fighting against drug dealers and police alike. They’re all trapped together in this slum, cops, gangsters, and everyday citizens. There’s a little bit of a hell-on-earth vibe on display through all the punching, kicking, and shooting. Corruption impacts everyone in a society, not just the players who’ve chosen to engage. BuyBust doesn’t shy away from laying bare the fallout of all this chaos on the innocent. And it gets real bonus points for that nuance.
In the end, BuyBust is somewhat of a mixed bag that feels equal parts calculated product and heart-felt love letter. The stars, director, and crew put their best efforts in for our entertainment and in the end they put enough heart and soul in that it ultimately works. With almost an hour of non-stop, well-choreographed and shot brutal action, this film is bending over backwards to entertain you. With its commentary on current Filipino culture, it justifies all the effort put in and gets a piece of entertainment out there to western audiences that might give us Americans something to think about and help us understand The Philippines just a little bit more. It also put the stars and the director on my list as talents to keep an eye out for. That it’s a little “samey” amidst an onslaught of love letters to The Raid can be forgiven.
Well Go USA have graciously released this one as a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack, and there’s plenty of visual finery on display in this film that more than justifies an HD release. The nighttime photography in the rain is often accompanied by neon or fire, and BuyBust was certainly crafted by a team with an eye for aesthetic. There is also a behind the scenes featurette and an extended Comic Con panel discussion, all of which served to make me understand and appreciate the film a little bit more. This is a situation where the bonus content actually helped me understand the context and effort put into the film better, and genuinely increased my appreciation of what I’d just seen. So sure… action fans could do a lot worse than to check out this Blu-ray release for themselves.
And I’m Out.
BuyBust hits Blu-ray/DVD combo pack October 16th, 2018 from Well Go USA.