As much as it is a product of its time and place, Buybust is also another film indebted to The Raid. Gareth Evans’s hard-hitting cult classic is not even ten years old, but its influence is wide and continuing to spread. It popularised both the premise of a police squad finding their backs to the wall in a confined location and the tightly choreographed dance of fighters and camera operator with its action. The 2012 film Dredd was practically a sci-fi remake and 2016 Indian action extravaganza Baaghi eventually tasked its protagonist with fighting his way up a building’s worth of goons while specifically referencing The Raid a couple of times in doing so. Jailbreak from Cambodia in 2017 trapped its police team in a prison and expanded the use of the action camera. I probably reference The Raid more than any other movie and will likely do so for some time to come!
Director Erik Matti has said the original script for Buybust was essentially a Filipino version of The Raid and that basic plot remains. A PDEA squad is sent into a notorious Manila slum to capture drug lord Biggie Chen. During shooting however, the new government in the Philippines began a strict crackdown on the drug trade, leading to an outbreak of real-world violence. (This conflict led to a military consultant on the film being killed on his anniversary and the closing credits begin with a section titled In Memoriam.) Director Matti didn’t want the film to appear oblivious of this context and thus it changed into something much murkier, putting Buybust thematically and tonally in the company of films like Sicario or TV series The Wire. The audience is meant to feel queasy about the measures taken to combat the illegal drug trade. This leaves a couple of elements of the film feeling like leftovers from the original version. In particular, two characters stand out as caricatures compared to those around them — one who wears light-up neon green glasses and another that comes into play near the end of the film. Overall though, Buybust is a tense and tragic thriller and a very distinct action movie.
For a start, it’s (sometimes literally) drenched in atmosphere. The set design and lighting departments have gone to town on this one and as the film enters the tight warrens of the slum and claustrophobia sets in this really hits home. The camera follows the police team through tight corridors littered with detritus and lit by bare light bulbs, garish strings of lights and shafts of illumination slipping through the trees and walls of shacks. Then it starts raining. For an added touch of tropical realism, about half the movie takes place in the rain and it’s quite the technical feat. Logistical issues were legion and led to such tricks as sticking sandpaper to slippery rooftops to prevent actors stacking it accidentally.
The actors do plenty of stacking it on purpose at other times because there’s plenty of action here as well. It’s around forty minutes before chaos begins to reign, but this pays off in several ways. The slow build ramps up the tension, and we get to meet the police team in a series of training and planning scenes that provide exposition and exposure to the different characters: emotionally scarred veteran of a previous drug bust attempt Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), big bruiser Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera) and squad leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri) being the main players, but all the squad members are differentiated in look and mannerisms. When the time comes to get down and dirty it’s easy to tell who’s who, which is mighty helpful in the potentially confusing confines where most of the action takes place.
When I say action, it would perhaps be more accurate to say violence. Fight director Sonny Sisson has created a style for the film that is all about survival, eschewing flashy choreography. It’s improvisational, messy and brutal and anything can be used as a weapon. Think about what objects could be found in a greenhouse and how they could be used to hurt someone. Sound also hammers home the horror of the situation. Like the street shoutout in Heat, the booming gunfire of automatic rifles is terrifying. This approach to the violence fits the film’s murky tone, where it’s often unclear whether the people the police team are fighting and killing are gang members or locals who resent the violence police incursions have brought to their neighbourhood. All our heroes do some very unheroic things.
The result is almost an anti-action movie. In most films of this type, action scenes are a chance to blow off steam and enjoy the skills of the performers. There’s no such catharsis here. When the fighting starts it leaves a sick feeling in your stomach instead, wishing it will stop. Gaps between the killing mercifully give the film a flow of peaks and troughs and some incredibly suspenseful scenes as the police team creep around, wondering which patch of darkness enemies are going to appear from next. Except you really hope that won’t happen because it won’t turn out well. For anyone. Seeing Manigan brandishing two broken bottles at an angry crowd, pleading with them to stop or she will kill them, it’s a sentiment the audience can readily agree with.
The way the action style meshes with the tone of the film is spoiled somewhat at the end. Some final twists are delivered in a scene which, despite the drama and bloodshed played out in the preceding hour and a half, dumps the themes of futility and moral compromise on the audience’s head with dialogue spelling all this out. The scene also relies on remembering a character unseen and unmentioned since very early on, which robs the moment of punch, if you can even remember who that character is. If this pivotal scene had played out less bluntly it would make for a stronger finish.
Despite this last minute stumble, Buybust is a strong film whose harrowing tone will likely make it stick in the mind. So, given the technical chops and on screen talent on display, it’s remarkable to note how much this is a film of firsts. Director Matti’s determination to see this demanding production through is admirable, especially as he considers it his first action movie. Star Anne Curtis makes a haunted character who kills heaps of people somehow still sympathetic. Better known as a TV variety show host and for starring in romantic comedies and dramas this is top stuff for her first action film role. She also hails from Victoria, which gives Aussies an extra reason to cheer her on! As an MMA champ, Brandon Vera’s first film appearance could potentially lead to a career trajectory like Dwayne Johnson’s if he makes the right choices and the cards fall in his favour. Buybust is already an eye-catching and pulse-pounding piece of cinema and these groundbreaking factors only make its quality more amazing.