I did not know anything about On The Job before I watched it. It was on the shelf in the library, next to Ma’ Rosa in the tiny Filipino film section. It seemed like a dumb action movie, and that was worth a checkout from the library, at least.
In many ways, it is a dumb action movie. Too-tight editing interferes with coherence and causes several jarring cuts between scenes in the first third. Information about the characters’ backgrounds is slowly teased out, though very little is actually treated as a mystery in the film, so the audience is left guessing until the end just to understand basic motivations of the characters. It’s also got a lot of intense fights and cool assassins and corrupt cops and slick action sequences. It’s a fun action movie!
But in other ways, it’s much more than just another dumb action movie. Once I started to piece together all the pieces, I realized that what I once took as defects were intentional misdirects. Where I could guess what would happen for the first two-thirds of the film, for the most part, the last third took several wild twists and wound up in a really dark film noir finale.
One misdirection is simply identifying the protagonist of the film. We are first introduced to Mario (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson). Mario is an experienced assassin, and Daniel is his understudy. They’re employed by a middleman representing obscured political figures; they get jobs so long as they’re serving their prison terms, as the corrupt guards can get them in and out to provide the perfect cover, and the prisoner-assassins are desperate enough to accept any job without question and expendable enough that there’s no particular risk in using/losing them.
These two do not seem like particularly bad men. Mario wants to get out to be with his family again. Daniel, despite his tough-guy exterior, can be shockingly sweet and loyal. But they’re both willing to kill anyone–including women, including the elderly, and never with a reason, just for cash and a little time out of prison. And Mario in particular is increasingly shown to be flawed, amoral despite his apparent desire to be a better man, caught up in a fantasy about his family that does not match the reality.
If not the assassins, then maybe the police investigating their killings are meant to be the protagonists? We first meet Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual), a top-of-his-class young police officer, when he is appointed by his father-in-law to head an investigation into the murder of a drug dealer. His father-in-law wants the matter to be handled discretely, and it’s not long before we realize he’s covering for a politician friend who has a history as the head of a contract killing agency. The murder of the drug dealer was carried out by Mario and Daniel, who are working through an intermediary to take out targets who could rat on the politician. Francis seems a little obtuse at first, or maybe just not especially interested in solving the crime. As he learns more of the truth, he is repulsed by his father-in-law’s corruption and personal sins, yet he finds it difficult to betray family. His assigned partner, Bernabe (Rayver Cruz), is a thug who is happy to beat suspects and informants but who seems relatively unconcerned with solving the case as well, and that attitude never really changes for the entirety of his time in the film.
The local police officer originally assigned to the case, Acosta (Joey Marquez), has a passion for justice, but his career has been hamstrung by that ethical drive in a corrupt department. And while we might suspect that he is the protagonist, once he appears, he is even crueler than Bernabe at first, too willing to go too far to try to get information. Furthermore, as a more practical matter, Acosta is just not that prominent in the film until about the midway point.
When Francis and Acosta inevitably team up, they both temper each other. Francis begins to stand up to his wife and father-in-law, unwilling to go along with the rampant corruption, though his opposition comes in fits and starts. Acosta gains focus and drive.
Yet the end of the film is a roller coaster ride that ends with the bad guys winning out, the few honest cops in disarray or dead, and Mario locked up in the hitman life for good. By the end, I decided that while there wasn’t a single protagonist, Mario might have been the chief protagonist–but he was not a hero. He was not even an antihero. He was a man who kills for money, ultimately left by the end with no other motivation. His actions, however, drive the plot and shape the other characters.
In some ways, the film becomes a metaphor for a set-in-its ways old guard that is challenged by a passionate new guard. Systematic corruption and inertia bend survivors to serve the old guard; those who resist are snuffed out. There’s also obvious social commentary in the film. While definitely an over-the-top action movie, police corruption and desperate poverty are perpetually relevant topics.
This film got under my skin and left me thinking. I think a re-watch would probably be quite rewarding. I was expecting a dumb action movie, and I got a complicated neo-noir story.
Director and co-writer Erik Matti delivered a highly compelling film that I would certainly recommend. And Joel Torre’s sympathetic portrayal of the cold killer Mario is a special highlight. This film is worth a watch.