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 functional.
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-]