A veteran hitman trains his replacement while an investigator with a chip on his shoulder tries to find them, in the exciting Filipino action drama On The Job. The twist (well, one of the twists) is that both sides are working for the same corrupt government.
Writer-director Erik Matti builds his film gradually, introducing us to the milieu and the characters before slowly letting us fully grasp their situation. When we first see Tatang (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson), they are being dropped off by their handler at a street fair. Tatang is the old hand, utterly professional and a bit worn-out, and Daniel is the ultimate rookie, cocky despite lacking proper training. As they work their way through the fair, Tatang is constantly chiding and guiding Daniel. When they finally find their mark, Tatang snaps into action with little hesitation. He draws his gun, and shoots his victim twice: once in the heart and once in the head. Over the course of the film, Tatang tries to drill this simple approach into Daniel, but inevitably the trainee screws up and many, many more bullets get fired.
On the other side, we have Francis (Piolo Pascual), an agent with the NBI (I'm assuming the Filipino equivalent of the FBI) and the son-in-law of a congressman. The congressman and his high-powered buddies want Francis to investigate the murder we saw at the beginning of the film. Little does Francis know, but the government is actually perfectly well aware of who is responsible for the killing: they are. Francis's father was an NBI chief who was allegedly wrapped up in dirty government dealings and was apparently killed by his collaborators. It dawns on Francis that he is being set up to follow in his father's footsteps, when he finds out from local cop Acosta (Joey Marquez) that the government has started plugging up info leaks by creating a hit list.
Then comes the masterstroke of the whole plan: these hitmen are actually prisoners. They are let out of prison to do the job, and then they are put right back behind bars, where no one would look for them. Tatang uses his time out of the joint to visit his family; his wife knows what's going on, but his daughter in law school just thinks he has a job that keeps him out of town most of the time (and this is sort of true too). Daniel similarly keeps his family in the dark about his situation, calling them and pretending to be working in Dubai. When Tatang is slated to be paroled, and Daniel is groomed to take his place, the rookie begins visiting an ex-girlfriend in hopes of starting over.
As with so many crime films, On The Job has some Scorsese in its DNA, but not in a way that feels like Matti is perpetrating an egregious rip-off. A long steadicam shot following Daniel as he walks around the prison, getting favors from different contacts, feels like an attempt to top the beloved one-take sequence at the Copa in GoodFellas. The darnedest thing is that Matti pulls it off.
After effectively establishing the world of his film during the first half, Matti unleashes a pulse-pounding 10-minute sequence that acts as the centerpiece of the film. Daniel takes the lead on a hit, it goes awry, they are chased by Francis and the local PD, and then Tatang has to finish the job in a hospital swarming with cops. Shifting from chaotic shoot-outs to tightly-wound suspense in a matter of minutes, this is bravura action filmmaking at its finest.
Even though Francis and Acosta are ostensibly the "good guys" of the film, Torre and Anderson's performances as the imprisoned hitmen are the emotional core of the film. When it seems likely that the new guy is going to be forced to prove his mettle by killing his mentor, the conflict comes across as effectively poignant. The somewhat surprising resolution of their situation is heartbreaking.
In the early going, On The Job may be a little confusing, as Matti sets up the tangled alliances and compromised morality of his story, but by the end, the film has completely delivered, both in terms of genre thrills and an engrossing story.