There were echoes of the “pork barrel” scam even in the local “red carpet” premiere of “On the Job.” A film about the intersecting lives of hired killers and law enforcers caught in the web of corruption and deception at the underbelly of Philippine society, “On the Job’s” main villains are a congressman and a former general who wields enormous power.
Congressman Manrique (Michael de Mesa) and General Pacheco (Leo Martinez) wheel-and-deal and order the killings of people who cross the pair’s patrons or threaten their interests. It isn’t clear where they get the wherewithal to maintain a small army of security men and assassins, much less a fleet of late-model SUVs and limos, but money from misused “pork” certainly looms high in our suspicions.
Their web of corruption ensnares a pair of prisoners/killers-for-hire—Mario “Tatang” Maghari (Joel Torre), a weather-beaten, graying killer ready to retire as his prison term nears its end; and Daniel Benitez (Gerald Anderson, defying his young heartthrob persona), whom Tatang takes under his wing to learn the ropes, including how to steel his nerves when he looks his victims in the eye.
Though initially complicit with the murderous cabal of the congressman (his father-in-law) and general, NBI agent Francis Coronel Jr. (Piolo Pascual) finds himself driven to investigate and go after the perpetrators of a series of killings. He even finds himself in an odd partnership with a lowly policeman who, for reasons of internal politics and his own fiery temper, finds himself stuck in the bottom ranks. But SPO1 Joaquin Acosta (a credible Joey Marquez, would you believe) is galvanized by the killing of a retired policeman-friend, even if he finds himself battling demons of his own.
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“Gritty” is a term often used for movies like “OTJ,” the filmmakers’ preferred title. Certainly, it is a raw, unadulterated view of life in the country; at some points, one could even seemingly smell the sewers and the human sweat emanating from slum alleys and the interiors of an overcrowded rowdy prison.
The screenplay by Michiko Yamamoto and director Eric Matti is unflinching in its exploration of the greed, ambition, violence and poverty at the heart of our national life. But it also takes detours into more intimate areas: a philandering spouse, a wife’s loyalty, a father’s despair and the friendship between men.
But for those who look for escape as in the typical rom-com mode, “OTJ” offers no relief. Aside from relentless action, propelled by a propulsive rock soundtrack, “OTJ” is unflinching in its portrayal of the mean streets of Manila, much of the action taking place in dark, murky scenes lit only by an indifferent street light or harsh naked bulbs.
In the film’s early portion, the contrast between the worlds of the killers-for-hire and the clean-cut NBI agent and his family could not be any sharper. While the pair of assassins moves about in dark alleys and cramped hovels, the agent and his family are filmed in sunshine and pastel interiors. But in time, they, too begin to move in the shadows, tramping through the city’s grime and meanness.
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Notable in “OTJ” is the use of co-producer Star Cinema’s vast collection of familiar faces in the industry, all going against type.
Niño Muhlach provides a most unexpected cameo as a petty criminal, almost unrecognizable with his odd hair-cut.
Despite his origins as a comedian, Marquez provides much-needed relief with his portrayal of a cynical cop wise to the ways of the world and of power. Anderson is believable as a petty criminal learning the ropes of the killing trade, although he seems rather implausible in his innocence.
The women, however, are shortchanged in their assigned roles, although Vivian Velez as the “middleman” who manages the killers’ assignments and pay-offs plays her enigmatic part with admirable stoicism. Angel Aquino, who plays Torre’s wife, seems a bit young for the role, but manages well in her scenes with the intense Torre.
Pascual may be the star of the film (he signed on quite early in “OTJ’s” four-year journey), and he does carry his part as an ambitious pliant law enforcer finally driven to do right with ability and credibility. But it is Torre, who rightfully earned “best actor” honors in a Korean film festival, who imbues “OTJ” with its steely heart. His Tatang is a cold-blooded killer, resigned to his fate, but battling to hold on to his dream of rejoining his family. He lends an aging weariness to the killer-for-hire, but his eyes reveal Tatang’s vulnerability.
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It was certainly a courageous decision for ABS-CBN to lend its stable of talents to “OTJ,” assuring at the very least a ready local audience for the movie. That the roles given to the actors went far beyond the usual tele-drama stereotypes, throwing even the actresses like Shaina Magdayao and Empress into roles that catapult them into adult status, certainly took daring for a studio intent on building a “wholesome” image for its talents.
But maybe that paves the way for Philippine entertainment striving to emulate the models set by juggernauts like Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and now, even Thailand and Singapore. Co-producer Dondon Monteverde of Reality Films announced before the film showing that they have succeeded in bagging bookings for “OTJ” in many foreign lands, including the United States. And they have done this with a film that, in the hands of writer/director Matti, is unabashedly Filipino, tackling head on our realities and issues, with all our weaknesses and failings. Yes, even “pork,” even if no one mentions the word, though we do see a pig being slaughtered in a pivotal scene.