On the Job relies on a good hook, great performances, and well developed characters to carry it through rather than big fireworks and fast paced thrills. It's totally basic but in the most complimentary way possible. While the film probably won't do much for general audiences, fans of well made crime cinema should definitely look out for it. The film opens with a guy getting his face blown off, if that helps you gauge potential interest.
The basic plot is pretty remarkable, made more so due to its almost unbelievable "based on a true story" nature. Corrupt government officials have been using prison inmates to carry out political assassinations. The prisoners get an unofficial day pass to make the hit but also earn a respectable amount of money and can spend the rest of their night however they please. No one suspects them for the killings because as prisoners they have a perfect alibi.
This setup sounds depressing, but it's not executed with that kind of tone. While certainly not silly or lighthearted, On the Job makes a strong case for the job's attractiveness from the prisoners' perspectives. They kill the shit out of people, but this is a relatively luxurious job, one they are desperate to keep. The script never attempts any on the nose examination of their victimhood as minor cogs of a corrupt society forced by economic stress into perpetuating that corruption even further. This is a very important detail because it grants the film permission to be cool and enjoyable despite all the darkness involved.
And it really is a cool movie. We spend most of the film following two of these assassins, one an old hand at the job played by Joel Torre, the other a bright eyed rookie played by Gerald Anderson. The former has a family to support, including a daughter who is just about to take the bar exam. The younger assassin has relationships as well but learning how to do the job defines his arc way more than any outside stuff.
Watching old pros train excited rookies is a pretty reliable genre standby. It engrosses us with the charm and leadership that comes with learned confidence and filters it through the eagerness of a willing pupil, all while teaching us the ins and outs of an unknown world. On the Job has many great sequences, but the training bits inside prison are easily the best. This is largely because the actors are so incredible, particularly Joel Torre's aged and tired assassin. Both are so true to their blue collar worker conventions that it's always a surprise when we're reminded how little they mind killing people.
But On the Job does not focus solely on assassins. It also tells the story of Francis Coronel, Jr. (played by Piolo Pascual) a young and ambitious police officer investigating the murders. While On the Job hooks us with likable, interestingly blue collar assassins, it is actually this cop who provides the film's most interesting plot developments. Coronel isn't just some eager rookie. He's the son of a murdered corrupt politician on the verge of marrying into yet another politically powerful but morally dubious family (director Erik Matti illustrates these characters' socially soaring, upper crust nature by pepper their conversation with frequent random sentences spoken in English). Eventually he is forced to choose between embracing affluence and throwing it all away to do the right thing.
Coronel's story takes advantage of fun genre tropes just as much as the assassins' plot. Coronel does not investigate the crimes alone but with Joey Marquez's Sgt. Joaquin Acosta, a truly badass veteran detective whose insistence on justice in a corrupt society cost him his chance for promotion and upward mobility. Like all good cop duos, at first these two guys are at odds, one accusing the other of corruption, one making fun of the other's age and low rank. As their team-up strengthens, however, so does the film's general badassery. It takes a little while, but by the time On the Job's plot fully starts cooking, we basically have four main characters paired up on opposite sides of the law, all of whom we are rooting for for various reasons. A lot of films try that kind of complicated dynamic, but few actually pull it off this well.
This is a violent film, but not overly so. This is a film about a particularly creative form of government corruption, but it's not depressing. This is a film loaded with genre cliches and familiar tropes, yet it feels fun and unique. There's a fine line between genre films that fulfill their requirements just enough to be boring and genre films that fulfill them just enough to be really great. This is one of the really great ones. Its greatness does not break free from the trapping of the crime film genre, but fans of such films should find plenty to enjoy.