A nose-to-the-ground crime thriller that also doubles as a wide-ranging portrait of official corruption in the Philippines, On the Job has little trouble delivering the genre goods. Director Erik Matti opens the film with a hit carried out by a pair of assassins in the midst of a crowded street festival, expertly building a sense of tension out of the energy pulsing from the thronged thoroughfare and skillfully maneuvering assassins and targets alike through the maze of people and toward the expected but still jolting conclusion. The men carrying out the hit, the aging Tatang Maghari (Joel Torre) and the youthful Daniel Benitez (Gerald Anderson), turn out to be jailbirds who, as part of a special arrangement with corrupt forces, are let out of prison to perform kill-for-hire jobs, their alibis airtight. The duo forms the focus of the story's criminal side, coupled in the narrative with an idealistic young cop, Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual), who, throughout the course of the film, has his naïveté seriously challenged as he finds that virtual every institution in Filipino society, including the police and the government, is operating within something less than strictly legal guidelines.
This both-sides-of-the-coin approach, which also extends to give us a brief peek into some of the more powerful operatives in Manila, allows Matti to turn a jaundiced eye on the way his country is run, as well as setting up an ethical dilemma on the part of Francis that provides the film with its moral thrust. But too much of the film's critique is blunt to the point of obviousness. Even as the plot takes on increasingly convoluted turns, the movie never fails to keep insisting upon the rottenness of every facet of Filipino society (including the relentlessly patriarchal Tatang's family life) with more conviction than insight. The film is far more successful when plunging us into one of its thrilling action set pieces. Employing a ragged handheld camera, but never sacrificing coherence, Matti stages such sequences as a Godfather-inspired hospital assassination attempt that later spills out into a subway chase sequence with effortless facility. It's when Matti gets too far away either from these showstopper sequences, or from indulging in his eye for detail within crowded settings such as the jailhouse, that the film runs into trouble. Taking on the ills of a whole country is an admirable goal for a filmmaker, but sometimes simply crafting a well-wrought genre film is enough.