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OTJ (On The Job): In the Underbelly of Service, Honor and Justice

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By Mike Rapatan

Erik Matti’s OTJ (On the Job) is a kinetic incursion to the underbelly of Philippine politics and the police system. Through the persistent yet doomed forays of NBI agent Atty. Francis Coronel Jr. (Piolo Pascual) into the murky depths of syndicated crime, Matti plunges the audience into the moral morass that lawmakers and lawbreakers dwell in. Matti’s montage title sequence where clips of the national government’s anti-corruption campaign intercut with gory tabloid street violence reports seems to establish a clear contrast between law and disorder. But as the film hurtles to its dismal end, Matti steers us to the conclusion that disorder is the law.

With co-screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto, Matti sets up the thesis that criminals and politicians are synonymous in their ethics and greed. He structures two parallel worlds led by hitmen-for-hire Mario “Tatang” Maghari (Joel Torre) and his understudy Daniel Benitez (Gerald Anderson) in one and in the other, by Coronel and his assistant Bernabe (Rayver Cruz) and their reluctant partner Sgt. Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez). Although Coronel, Acosta and Bernabe valiantly uphold the virtues of the police profession (“service, honor, justice” as written on the logo), their efforts are grossly undercut by Coronel’s father-in-law, Congressman Manrique (Michael de Mesa), and military honcho General Pacheco (Leo Martinez) who is intent on being the banner senatorial candidate of the National Reform Party. Matti with his production designer Richard Somes spends the early part of the film rendering the seedy milieu of these lead characters and the denizens that depend and feed off on them in cramped shanties, claustrophobic alleyways, smokey nightclubs and rundown government offices.

True to the conventions of the film noir genre, these squalid locales harbor sinister secrets. When Pol (Lito Pimentel) calls Acosta for help following the murder of Linda, his wife, he reveals to him the existence of General Pacheco’s clandestine assassination squads consisting of prisoners like Tatang and Daniel who are conspiratorially released by wardens for their covert assignments. Upon liquidation of their targets and receipt of payment for their services, Tatang and Daniel and other killers scattered throughout the metropolis return to their respective prisons and nonchalantly resume their daily routines. Being resident prisoners, they are never suspected of committing the crimes reported the next day.

As a team, Tatang and Daniel are known to efficiently accomplish their job as shown in the opening murder scene of Johnny Tiu (Stephen Ku) in a downtown fiesta celebration. Nearing his parole date, Tatang prepares Daniel to take on the role of point man in succeeding assignments. A call to take down Pol, Johnny’s associate, comes through and Daniel has another chance to prove his mettle with Tatang as his back-up. But the murder becomes a botched job. Daniel grazes Pol’s shoulder and runs short of bullets. The shooting alerts Coronel and Acosta who quickly transport Pol to a hospital. Prodded by Thelma (Vivian Velez), the contact who contracted them, Tatang and Daniel track Pol down. Tatang finally shoots him in the hospital but creates a commotion that sends Coronel and Acosta hot on his trail.

The incident is an eye-opener for Coronel who discovers from his father-in-law Pacheco’s felonious operation. He confronts Pacheco who in the past was involved in the death of his father. Pacheco does not admit to killing his father but asserts that the interests of national security prevailed over his father’s life. Repulsed by his reply, Coronel sets up a furtive recording on his cell phone of Pacheco ordering the murder of Johnny’s father, Charlie Tiu. Armed with his recording, Coronel calls Acosta to tell him of the evidence at hand that can be used to convict General Pacheco and his cohorts. But as he parks his car in front of the police headquarters, Coronel is shot by Daniel on a solo assignment. Acosta hears the gunfire and finds Coronel’s bloody and contorted body on the pavement. Disgusted, Acosta goes amok and fires at Pacheco’s bulletproof vehicle. Pacheco orders his men to stand down and leave him alone.

Back in jail, the resilient Tatang prepares for his release, days after surviving a harrowing interrogation by Acosta on his involvement with Pol’s murder. Daniel tearfully bids goodbye to Tatang and thanks him for all that he has learned. As Tatang gives him a fatherly hug, Tatang stabs him much to Daniel’s shock. As masterfully and dispassionately played by Joel Torre, Tatang walks away from the scene looking morose, repentant, stunned and hardened. He proceeds to cut off his ties with his family when days later he shoots his wife’s lover in full view of his daughter Tina (Empress Schuck) and his two-timing wife Lolet (Angel Aquino). Rather than close on this act of revenge, the film ends with Bernabe retrieving Coronel’s mobile phone containing the incriminating recording.

The closing scene hints at some redemption and justice for Coronel. But for the most part, Matti and Yamamoto searingly depict the insidious and destructive force of an elite power corps that cannot be brought to justice because like wolves in sheep’s clothing, it operates in the guise of the law. As echoed by the lyrics of the film’s opening and closing song, Maskara by Dong Abay, the guilty are entrenched in positions of influence and may never be convicted. Through this bleak social commentary, Matti elevates the action film from being a mere string of tiresome chases and noisy gunfire.

Coronel and Daniel’s fates are part of a recurring subtext throughout the story – the primacy of vested interests and the dissolution of bonds among men, specifically between fathers and sons or father and son figures. The film embeds in its narrative a spectrum of these absent father and lost son relationships –Tatang with the eager Daniel; Tatang with his family; Acosta with Boyet (JM de Guzman), his drug addict son; Johnny Tiu with his father Charlie; Coronel with his departed father; and Coronel with his scheming father-in-law. In most of these relationships, the strength of these paternal ties wears down and in the end collapses under the weight of personal ambition.

On first viewing, one can easily miss the intricacies of this discourse and crucial details that make sense of the above labyrinthine plot. The frenzied pace in scenes such as the title sequence detailing the murder of Johnny Tiu and the follow-up interview of Charlie Tiu and the first attack on Pol whiz by at a heady rate that it takes time for one to recover and assemble the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle-like scenes. While the hectic editing (done by Jay Halili) accelerates the narrative flow as befits an action film, the follow-up exposition in a number of sequences appears muddled or enigmatic. The synthesis of music (by Erwin Romulo with terrific support from other artists), editing and agile cinematography (by Ricardo Buhay III) can be overpowering in its energy causing viewers to pause every now and then and find their bearings.

The sound design by Corinne De San Jose and mixing by Mikko Quizon in key scenes effectively project the tension that the characters feel. For instance, at the hospital corridor where Acosta searches for Tatang, the background music of processed drumbeats plays forebodingly low then gives way to the isolated and measured sound of Tatang’s footsteps as he enters Pol’s room followed by sharp gunshots segueing into screams of help and a pounding score. In another scene where Daniel shoots Linda, the sound design juxtaposes in an ironic way squeals of pigs being slaughtered followed by rapid gunfire and bridges to a loud mellifluous and nursery-like rhythm of a children’s duck song playing at an ongoing christening party. In other scenes such as Coronel’s chase of Daniel into the LRT stations and cars, the crowded and subterranean ambience of the jailhouse and the ear-splitting shootouts in public spaces, the film’s sound design and synchrony with edgy music show deep aural perspective giving texture and density to the film’s realism.

Through the confluence of these high production values accompanied by the gritty ensemble acting of its colorful cast, Matti in this action film delivers a stinging critique of the political system where well-intentioned leaders are unknowingly subverted by the illicit power play of chief officers like General Pacheco. As Walter Kelly once famously said, “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us”.