Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has faced international criticism for its draconian drug war as waged by a thuggish, purportedly authoritarian leader. Filmmaker Erik Matti reportedly is a critic of the Duterte government, but his ambitious action film feels like an attempt to have it both ways about the drug war. Both sides, pro and anti-Duterte, can read what they want into it. One side can point to a gruesome orgy of excessive force and the film's peeling away of layers of police duplicity and corruption. The other may find confirmation in the film of a belief that the slum dwellers among whom the drug dealers flourish are little better than rabid animals. The desired effect may well be to call a plague down on both houses, crooks and cops alike.
Basically a cross between The Raid and The Warriors, the film follows an elite police unit into one of the worst slums in an attempt to capture a notorious druglord. New to the team is Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), recently the sole survivor of a bungled earlier raid. In training for her new role she's undisciplined, determined to take the initiative when her instructors insist on her following orders. As you might expect, exactly those qualities the instructors deplore will come in very handy when this raid also falls apart and proves to be a trap set for the cops. Lured into a labyrinthine urban kill-box, the team must undertake a grim anabasis back the way they came, fighting their way through neighborhoods mobilized to kill them. Some of the slum dwellers are clearly drug-crazed; others hope to earn a bounty on the cops; others still simply hate cops for making their communities collateral damage in the drug war. Others yet are plainly terrorized into cooperating, or else too terrified to help the police.
The force is winnowed down to two as we near the climax: Manigan and the hulking, Diesel-esque and almost indestructible Yatco (Brandon Michael Vera). They fight with increasing savagery even when repeated stabs and slashes should have worn or bled them out. However implausibly, Manigan outlasts the valiant Yatco and against all odds manages to capture the druglord. Her confrontation with Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde) leads to a perhaps-predictable all-you-thought-you-knew-was-wrong moment when the gangster informs on Manigan's superiors, who prove all too eager to silence Biggie and possibly Manigan as well. Meanwhile, the news media reports thirteen killed in the raid when audiences might find ten times that number a conservative estimate.
Whatever critical intent Matti had is probably undermined by his heroine's almost cartoonish resilience and her slightly unconvincing prowess as a killing machine -- Anne Curtis is a pop singer and variety-show hostess in real life, but then again Takeshi Kitano was a game show host once upon a time -- and also by his arbitrary, inconsistent treatment of the slum dwellers. He wants them to be seen as victims as monsters at the same time, but since we presumably want Manigan, who is not corrupt, to survive we presumably root for her to annihilate all the obstacles in her path. The violence goes way over the top at times as Yatco decapitates a female attacker with garden shears after smacking her in the face with a cactus and he and Manigan escape a mob thanks to a mass electrocution. If over-the-top action is all you're looking for then I can recommend BuyBust as a compelling compendium of carnage enhanced by excellent cinematography by Neil Derrick Bion. But as a commentary on the Duterte drug war it's too enthusiastic about its ghoulish work and too easily tempted to dehumanize the actual victims of the story to say anything meaningful beyond the obvious. Something is clearly very wrong in that country, but BuyBust may be more a symptom than a diagnosis.