If I was the kind of critic who specialized in easily quotable phrases referencing other movies, I’d describe Buybust as “a horizontal Raid.” Since I’m not, I’ll call it an expert exercise in screws-tightening suspense and excitement, guaranteed to make Filipino director Erik Matti Hollywood’s next hot action import. See it before he gets hired to helm a Fast and the Furious spinoff. (You’ll be able to do that in select U.S. theaters August 10, following its home release August 1 and screenings at festivals including Montreal’s Fantasia, where Buybust had its Canadian premiere.)
After a pre-credits sequence in which good cop-bad cop detectives Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino) and Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) put the squeeze on captured drug thug Teban (Alex Calleja), we meet Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), part of a group of police officers just about to graduate into an elite anti-narcotics squad. Another member of the team is Rico (MMA champion Brandon Vera, making his charismatic big-screen debut), and they’re given what is for Manigan a hell of a first assignment: with Teban’s help, they set out to apprehend crime overlord Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). It’s a tense mission to start with, and more so for Manigan as she has a serious beef with Dela Cruz, stemming from a mission that went horribly wrong some time ago.
Then the point of capture changes to Gracia Ni Maria, a Manila slum that’s a rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleys amidst a seemingly endless array of ramshackle one-story buildings. Even before the bust inevitably goes awry, Matti and editor Jay Halili put the audience on considerable edge, expertly cutting and pacing the lengthy sequence in which the squad creeps through the mazelike town in the gloom of night, trying to keep quiet any locals who might give them away. Once Chen’s lieutenant Chongki (Levi Ignacio) gets wind of their presence, things skip straight over bad and go directly to worse, as his weapon-wielding minions go after the team, whose big guns are not much of an advantage in this unfamiliar, confined environment.
Although The Raid might be the most apt recent point of comparison, Buybust is part of an urban quest-to-survive tradition that goes back to Walter Hill’s The Warriors, with touches of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 as the squad members become trapped in small rooms besieged and invaded by seemingly endless legions of bloodthirsty attackers. At the same time, Buybust is very much its own film, with a distinct look bordering on the horror genre, as rain pours down on our heroes, lightning flashes, thunder crashes and cinematographer Neil Derrick Bion makes spooky use of source lighting—old light bulbs and fire illuminating the action. And oh, that action: Matti and fight director/choreographer Sonny Sison stage one intense close-quarters gunfight and mano-a-mano brawl after another, shot in a direct, punchy style that makes every fist, foot and bullet hit land in your gut. Not to mention the assorted found objects that come into play; as Manigan and her cohorts become ever more desperate, everything from an umbrella to a potted cactus is pressed into service as a weapon.
Through it all, Curtis emerges as a major action star in the making, with a no-nonsense appeal and action chops matching her acting chops (which, surprisingly, have been employed mostly by romantic comedies in the past). In a movie that does not gender-discriminate when it comes to meting out the brutality, Manigan stands as a new standard-bearer for genre-cinema heroines, and we’ll no doubt be seeing a lot more of Curtis in the future. She particularly proves herself during a long, breathtaking single-take setpiece that comes toward the end of Buybust, serving as the pièce de résistance of this thrilling showcase for Matti’s talents. And it’s not just about the carnage; the movie makes potent points about the collateral damage wreaked by the Philippines’ war on drugs, as the residents of lower-class communities like Gracia suffer and die thanks to the cop-vs.-criminal conflicts playing out in their midst. This subtext culminates in the film’s striking final shot, an effectively sobering capper for the two hours of rousing chaos that have preceded it.