Two men, one older, one younger, make their way through a crowded street in Manila, where a carnival is taking place. The older one is Tatang (Joel Torre), and he is mentoring the younger, Daniel (Gerald Anderson): when they separate to stand at opposite sides of the street, it is obvious they are up to something. And sure enough, when Tatang gives him the nod, they attack a man who has been standing and watching the festivities, gunning him down and making good their escape. The man was part of the Filipino government and these two assassins have been in prison for their past crimes - in fact, they're headed back there now, having been given a day release to kill.
Think of action movies from the Philippines and you may be liable to cast your mind back to the nineteen-seventies and eighties when the likes of Roger Corman were providing funding for the locals to make thrillers of varying degrees of lunacy with American leads for the international market. Any films made there actually starring Filipinos were strictly for the domestic market, but fast forward a few decades and the prolific writer-producer-director Erik Matti managed to generate interest in a movie that was largely shot in the nation's native language and with homegrown stars that actually picked up interest abroad, and in the West, for its action and drama.
Not to mention the political angle, for giving On the Job its edge was that it purported to be very close to reality. As the situation in the Philippines gained attention internationally as it seemed a combination of natural disasters it could not pick itself up from and corruption scandals that turned murderous, all with the sanctioning of the authorities, were turning the land into one of the most desperate countries on Earth. How true that impression was remained debatable, but that debate was valid as, for example, the President ordered the killing of criminals without trial to combat the skyrocketing crime rate. This was not about that state of affairs, but something different.
Here the issue was that the authorities, or certain numbers of them at any rate, were releasing prisoners as part of a culture of "allowed" hitmen, all to execute troublesome characters before locking the jailbirds up once again, until it was time for them to be unleashed once more. Tatang was the old lag who has been participating for some time and seeking to pass the baton onto his pupil Daniel, who may not be up to the task, being immature and out of his depth, or Tatang suspects this at any rate. But they were not the only characters Matti wanted to bring to our attention, as we also followed a young policeman, Francis Coronel Jr (Piolo Pascual) who clashed with his superiors when he attempted to bring the prison killers to justice, and thereby accusing their enablers.
Maybe there was a shade too much of the men of power, and men who think they have power, thrashing things out verbally, for when Matti showed his way around an action sequence, he really stepped up a gear and made waiting through those earnest conversations well worth it. Many highlighted the double whammy of the hospital scene followed hot on its heels by a chase around the city's underground train system, and as this arrived slap bang in the middle of the film, it could not have been better placed. That's because when the big action setpiece showed up, you would think ah, here's what they've all been talking about, and once it was over you were full of anticipation there would be more. In the main, the tone of On the Job was despairing that things had got this bad, and it was not exactly an optimistic watch as it could not see any path out of this morass of illegality and immorality, but if you were in the mood for a stark, unsentimental dramatic thriller about a serious subject, it was well enough done here. Pounding music by Erwin Romulo.