On The Job
Directed by Erik Matti
Written by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti
There is that prosaic title, and the way its lack of macho swagger can be taken as Erik Matti deliberately being coy. OTJ did go by a slightly more playful name, OJT, a colloquial acronym for “on-the-job training” and an example of how a mere transposing of letters can spell a galaxy of difference. OJT is active, a working towards something, a baptism of fire. OTJ is more passive, more rudimentary. It also clicks into place contextually. The four men around which its murky soup swirls, two cops and two killers, are, after all, disgruntled professionals and work is their vortex, giving their dead-end lives a scrap of meaning but sucking them in and slowly corroding them in the process. OTJ is essentially about the four walls of the work and the slow death from the ways it closes in on you. Its undertow of conspiracy may insinuate a malaise that creeps far beyond its confines, reaching up to lowlifes in high places even, but everything boils down to an organization merely cleaning house.
There's a world-weary pessimism snaking throughout that makes it almost misleading to front-load the hard-sell with the promise of gunporn and all the swashbuckle and catharsis it implies. The elaborate gun battle that starts in a network of alleyways, moves to a crumbling hospital, before splintering into a subway train and a dock warehouse is neither swashbuckling nor cathartic, but rather, cramped, brutish, graceless. Erik Matti has never been anyone’s go-to for fethisizing violence and OTJ is not so much a love letter to the domestic action film but rather an emasculation. Like the crime films of Jean Pierre Melville and Johnnie To, of which it's most kindred, it undercuts the romanticized masculinity of its noble rogues. With nihilism, with desperation, with nowhere to go and nothing to live for. But where Melville and To often saw these as conduits to an existential apotheosis, sometimes to a grudging redemption, Matti sees it more as a fatalistic cul-de-sac. There is no working towards something here, except maybe a downward spiral. Bereft of heroes as it is of hope, it's closer, really, in temperament , in worldview, in its spatial confusions, in the harsh economy of its combat, in the blighted void that passes for its world, to a less recombinant, far purer iteration of noir.
The contours of the characters bear that out. Joey Marquez, he’s “real po-lice”, paying the price for playing by the rules by languishing in the lower rungs of bureaucratic obscurity. His career is a stupor, and the one case that pries him from it has to get taken over by someone above his pay grade, Piolo Pascual's bright young NBI over-achiever. Joel Torre, meanwhile, is role-playing the weathered guru to brash protégé Gerald Anderson, both are doing hard time but moonlighting as hatchet men, working hard for the money, voguing on the thrill. Cops and killers, and all the things they are to each other, may be the coin of its realm but OTJ refuses to mine their propensity for symbiosis and overlap, that old Holmes slash Moriarty schism. These four men don't mirror each other. They're chess pieces, stacked on opposite sides. And the pulp tropes from which they're hewn are as familiar as the polarities that impel them: the friction when the new school rubs up against the old, the siege mentality of mis-matched partners, the Oedipal tensions between father figure and pretender to the throne. All of these get hinted at, none of which get belabored, leaving all four with enough room to shape-shift their stereotypes as far away from genre cliches as they can.
The kids (Pascual, Anderson) are alright, sure. But this is an old man's game. Marquez is a knockout, and he doesn't even bother reining in the comic persona that has become his stock in trade. He is, in many ways, the same well-meaning buffoon he played in, say, Bobocop, but locates, underneath the wise-cracks and the bluster, a rumpled melancholia, a casual sense of his own doom. And Torre, perhaps aware that he's such a shoo-in for the part as to be almost typecast and predictable, refuses to play up to expectations. He falls back, doesn't hurry, let's us snipe him as he slowly and subtly tinges his wizened composure with a dolorous solemnity that eventually becomes his ascension. The man not only wears gravity well, he fucking defies it, too.