Length: 6 episodes (46-65 minutes each)
Cast: Gerald Anderson, Joel Torre, Joey Maquez, Piolo Pascual, John Arcilla, Dennis Trillo, Dante Rivero, and Christoper de Leon.
4 out of 5 stars.
Streaming on HBO GO from 12 September
If you've never watched Filipino cinema before, then On The Job is a good first foray. This six-part crime thriller on HBO revolves around corrupt politicians and the criminal underworld, in a slick but gritty drama that easily matches the crime shows of Hong Kong cinema. Originally comprised of two films, On The Job and its sequel On The Job: The Missing 8, the television series On The Job is a re-edited version that splits the two movies into six separate episodes.
Being a re-edited version of two films, On The Job can be split broadly into two parts. The first two episodes focus on convicts who are used as assassins-for-hire, as well as the masterminds behind the scheme and the police officers who try to apprehend them. The last four episodes tell the tale of a small town newspaper and its investigation into a case of several missing persons, and the network of corruption that lies behind it all.
The film On The Job debuted in 2013. Although it saw a limited release worldwide, it was significant for its gritty portrayal of the Philippines' criminal underworld and impressive action sequences. At that time, I had just gotten off writing for the third season of Point of Entry (we had done research into the criminal underworld in the Philippines for that season, as one of the main antagonists was a criminal mastermind from the Philippines), so it was a happy coincidence to find out that a movie had been released about the same subject matter, but depicted in a manner that was not beholden to public broadcaster standards. The On The Job film was re-edited to form the first two episodes of this 2021 series.
Director Erik Matti's flair for action is evident in the first two episodes, from the rather shocking way crime is portrayed and the incredibly violent assassinations depicted, with victims being riddled with bullet holes. (Read our interview with the director and cast here.) The sheer brutality and speed of those scenes drives home the weight of these crimes — and even main characters aren't spared from the copious casualties in the series.
The last four episodes of the series is re-edited from On The Job: The Missing 8, which is the 2021 sequel to the first film. It mainly debuted at film festivals rather than cinemas, but lacks much of the gory, gritty action from the first two episodes.
This second part of the series tries to make a point about fake news and political agendas behind newspapers, and resorts to graphics and visualisations of newspapers for that. Already, in 2021, the style of those visualisations (think of how Sherlock does the visualisations for text messages or the protagonist's thoughts) look dated, and it's clear that will not age well.
The story is also incredibly convoluted in the second part, with some plot threads going nowhere. In fact, after a lengthy CCTV investigation scene where the characters discover that a politician is secretly gay, the immediate retort to that is "Does that matter in this day and age?", which makes you wonder why the entire sequence was even included in the first place.
But it's the tense confrontations that Matti truly excels at, across all six episodes. Whether those dramatic scenes are between fathers and sons, politicians and police officers, or journalists and mayors, Matti skilfully manoeuvres the characters like a master chess player, as simmering tensions boil over and old grudges rise to the surface. It's these scenes that truly allow you to get to know the characters as real people, with complex desires and conflicted motivations.
Matti also humanises the characters, be they assassins-for-hire or corrupt politicians, showing us a glimpse into their lives and families. We see how they're driven by simple things like family and love, and at times, the show feels like a critique on the human condition and how we're all very much the same, regardless of our differences.
Of course, splitting a movie into several parts for a television series has its downsides. The pacing for some episodes can be odd, especially since it can end rather abruptly without paying off plot points earlier in the episode. The last four episodes are best watched in a single sitting to better understand the storylines that are weaved across all four episodes — although it can be quite a monumental task to watch over three hours of the series at one go.
On The Job shows that the Philippines can be a strong contender for Asian crime thrillers, rivalling that of more established places like Hong Kong. Its mix of action and drama, due to its roots as two theatrical films, brings a hitherto unseen part of the Philippines to the small screen. Its format as six episodes offers the flexibility to watch it as an episodic series or two films (by watching the first two episodes at one shot, then the next four episodes together), although it's best viewed as the latter. I'm excited to see more content from the Philippines after watching On The Job.
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