2018 has been an extraordinary year for action cinema. O’Shea Jackson Jr, Pablo Schreiber and Gerard Butler brought brains, brawn and full-tilt Butlery to Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves. Scott Adkins ran a bullet-and-fist-packed gauntlet of established and up-and-coming martial arts actors in Jesse V. Johnson’s Accident Man. Matilda Lutz hunted her rapist and battled the unforgiving desert in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. Tom Cruise happily hurled himself, his team and Henry Cavill’s mustache into thrilling peril in Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Joe Taslim, Julie Estelle, Iko Uwais, and the movie-stealing Zack Lee waged a private war soaked in blood, conspiracies and bitter personal history in Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us. Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell killed Nazis until they stayed dead in Julius Avery’s Overlord. And that’s just the small handful I’ve seen, never mind the ones I have not (yet) been able to get to or the extraordinary action that popped up in other genres. But, as 2018 draws to a close and I reflect on the films that have moved me over the year, there’s one action picture in particular that I crown with laurels - Erik Matti’s BuyBust. It’s a rain-soaked all-night fight for survival with a fiercely beating heart driven by fury at the callous brutality of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.
BuyBust’s story is simple. Its execution makes it terrific. Detectives Alvarez (Noni Buencamino) and Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) convince a drug dealer named Teban (Alex Calleja) to flip on his boss, the elusive Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). An elite anti-drug squad is called in to execute a sting. Its members include newcomer Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) – the sole survivor of a police unit destroyed by a traitor she’s vowed to find and kill – and Rico Yatco (Brando Vera) – a big-hearted man who looks out for his peers. The operation goes sideways shortly after it begins, when Chen changes the location for the meeting from a public, open market to the crowded, labyrinthine slum of Gracia. Once Chen’s forces lure the squad into Gracia, they spring their trap, and everything goes straight to hell. Outnumbered and cut off from any outside help, the squad must fight their way out – contending not only with Chen’s men, but with the residents of Gracia, who are fed up with being murdered by killer cops and merciless drug lords and want all of them out, dead or alive. The greater drug war’s thresher of corruption and death, and the traitor Manigan hunts, lurk in the background.
Now granted, I’m fairly young and there’s so much that I still have to see, but I have never seen movie action work the way BuyBust’s does. Manigan and her squad are dangerous and inventive fighters, well-trained, well-equipped and unwilling to give up in the face of overwhelming odds. And they are almost completely helpless. Their guns are ineffective, as likely to hit an innocent or an ally as a foe in Gracia’s cramped corridors. When depleted of ammunition, the squad is more than a match one-on-one hand-to-hand, but they never face just one foe. The city itself seems to fight them, its streets a flooded maze of blind alleys in the rain. Adrenaline, courage, strength, skill, and training can go a long way over a long, bad night. But emotional and physical exhaustion and injury exact a harsh toll, and add up. No matter how indomitably willed the fighter, a bullet to the head is still a bullet to the head. And even a scrawny jerk in a hideous bathrobe can get the upper hand on a cop when he’s fully rested and she’s spent the night fighting for her life. Until the last act, Matti’s characters aren’t fighting to defeat their foes: they’re fighting to get away from them, even for a moment, or to buy time for others to get clear.
Make no mistake, BuyBust has seriously jaw-dropping action. Matti focuses on Manigan and Yatco in lengthy sequences as they take on dozens of foes in rain and neon. A cactus, a wheelbarrow and a whole cornucopia of other found objects are put to, let’s say, unconventional use. Yet even these thrills are momentary victories at best, driven by desperation and creativity rather than dominance. BuyBust never stops. It slows down here and there to make time for character and context, but it never halts completely until the credits roll. If Manigan, Yatco and company stop, they die. Matti never lets them.
BuyBust’s constant motion produces a striking narrative narrowing effect that Matti wields to its fullest extent as a storytelling tool. As the movie moves forward, Matti introduces character details, makes notes on the murderous politics and corruption that drive the drug war and lays out the context for BuyBust’s various characters in relation to each other. It would be easy for these details to fall by the wayside as the action intensifies, but Matti doesn’t forget them. He brings them back precisely, in a quiet moment or in the heat of the action. Whether it’s facts about a character’s life that comes into particular focus with their death, a stark reminder of reality in a moment where someone looks like they might just pull off a miracle or an unexpected moment of courage or dignity from someone who hadn’t shown much inclination for either, Matti’s strategic expansion and contraction of the audience’s perspective creates moments whose cinematic power rivals, and maybe even exceeds BuyBust’s tremendous action.
No moment hits as hard, though, as placing this disastrous drug bust in the greater context of the Philippine Drug War. All the brutality, corruption, cruelty and death in the film is but a tiny sliver of a greater moral atrocity that Manigan and her squadmates are directly perpetuating, however personally noble or venal they may be.
Matti does present the possibility that the system might be dismantled, that the war might be ended. And crucially, the method he presents is a nonviolent one, dragging darkness into the light. But whether there will be an opportunity to pursue that possibility is another, bloodier matter, a sobering realization Matti leaves for Manigan – and the audience – to sit with, as he finally brings BuyBust to a stop after one last burst of action. For a movie with teeth, it’s an ending with fangs. And even in a year where Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais faced off in a battle Uwais himself choreographed and Tom Cruise weaponized an unarmed helicopter after it crashed, for me, BuyBust comes out on top.