Erik Matti's Buybust opens with two seasoned cops interrogating a low level Manila drug dealer. Word is, Biggie Chen, as his name states he is the biggest drug dealer around, is in town, and they want to know where so they can go bust him. They assemble a strike team with includes anti-narcotics special operative Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), the lone survivor of another drug raid that was compromised by dirty cops.
After failing to draw Chen out in the open at a planned drug bust the strike team is lured into the confined spaces of the Gracia Ni Maria slums. When the raid goes wrong the police find themselves trapped in the slum with Chen’s gang and the shanty town’s residents, who have armed themselves to the teeth. The team’s only option is to fight their way out, through the shanty’s claustrophobic streets, through the army of gang members and angry residents, by any means possible.
The setup is already very familiar to everyone who has been paying attention to action cinema. We have seen the entrenched police squad fight it's way out of tight spot, against all odds before. We expect that all but one of two of them are going to die - possibly horrifically. We expect to find out that one of them is a traitor or there is a treacherous act which will place the squad in peril in the first place. With films like The Raid and Dredd having already done the trapped against insurmountable odds action film before how does new entry Buybust hold up?
It brings me no joy to report this but Buybust is more bust than buy.
Before we dig at the big issue Buybust has let’s accentuate the positives. To its credit once the action gets going in Buybust it is pretty much non stop from there on in. It may also be the most stabby action film of the contemporary age. The surviving team members must use their knives after they quickly run out of bullets gunning down the masses of angry residents and gangsters in the early goings. There is a lot of stabbing. A lot.
We also do not believe any of us will have seen such a diverse group of antagonists in any other action film as well. Because nearly all of the slum turns against the squad this means that the team is fighting whomever comes at them, men, women and in some cases children.
There are spare moments of tension as well. When the team enters into Gracia Ni Maria and we see how tightly packed the shanty homes are. Anticipating how pear shaped this is going to go you just know being in those tights spots surrounded by that many people is not going to end well. As they move further and further into the belly of the beast they have to avoid detection and those moments are just fine.
It is nice to see rain play a role other than just atmosphere in Buybust. It muffles sound of course so when it stops and there is only silence it helps build tension in another scene as the team is trapped in the open and trying to make as little noise as possible.
The showcase set piece in the entire film comes in the back end. It is a single take where Manigan goes up, down and across the shanty homes of Gracia Ni Maria. She is fighting off the largest number of hostiles yet. It is so well staged that the camera effortlessly follows her above and below the rooftops. It really is too bad though that the action does not compliment the amount of work that Matti and his crew put into creating this moment.
That is the problem with Buybust. The action.
The action we presume is meant to look dirty, brutal and thuggish but in all honesty it looks awkward and clumsy. At times it also looks half hearted, that the actors were more concerned about hitting the beats and making their marks. During that set piece we mentioned above Manigan halfheartedly throws bad guys off the catwalk except the energy she exerts does not match the stunt man or woman’s enthusiasm to sell the moments. All of it feels basic and fundamental at best. Any moments of inspiration or coolness, and there are some, are overwhelmed by mediocre execution.
For example resident large man Rico (Brandon Vera) is taking on a slew of baddies in some kind of cistern. There is a moment that Matti chooses to shoot from above and we can see that Rico grabs a thug by his small head and drags it along a wall. But we only see that far up top. Holy hell. The camera should have been right there to watch Rico do that. That, was a moment where Matti could have got a solid reaction out of his audience but get nothing but a overhead glimpse that shows us nothing. Damnit.
We will speak to a very specific group right now, fans of Shaw Brothers martial arts cinema. Action in a Shaw Brothers film was precise and mechanical, a study of form and structure of each martial arts school's style. Despite the rigidity by which those actors carried out their choreographed fight scenes there was still an inherent beauty to each fight. A majesty if you will. Now imagine that you have just seen a really great SB film and you and your friends, none of whom have any formal training or experience, go out in the backyard and all but mimic those fights. Can you picture that? How awkward that must look? That is what the action in Buybust looks like.
The action in Buybust feels like it lacks certainty and confidence. Think of all the blocking exercises you have seen in behind the scenes videos and this is the level of energy by which the action scenes are carried out in Buybust. There is no intention or purpose to their movements. Here you have a film with a two hour run time and about three quarters of that is supposed to be action packed but you are left waiting for big moments for a very, long time. You spend that time counting the movements of the choreography in the actors’ heads. This is where I should kick. Now I have to punch here. Now I have to block here. Stab stab stab. Stab stab stab.
Lost of stabbing. Still a plus.
Buybust also gets real preachy at the end and everything stops so that the Biggie Chen can wax on about how deep the corruption goes on both sides. You almost feel that Matti went through all the motions of a siege acton film to condemn both sides of the war of drugs in the Philippines. It does set the film up for a bit of a surprise ending at the end, but one that perhaps the audience may feel that Manigan particularly needed to save herself from in the first place, But corruption does run deep on both sides so what little choice did she have.
In conclusion we have an action film with a familiar set up but in a setting that should promise big action moments. What we got was an amatuer effort at best to respond to the crisis and instead puts of all its energy in the setup and eventual ‘this is the reason why you are here, dying one by one, at the hands of gang members and angry residents’ sermon at the end.
The underlying theme of corruption and betrayal works better in other genres like the thriller. If you are going to wax on about corruption within the action genre at the very least you have to deliver something worthwhile action-wise to fill in the spaces between your position on the matter. Sadly, Buybust is a case of quantity over quality. While it may deliver in volume it is nothing more than just white noise.