‘On The Job’ HBO series review: a thrilling descent into the Philippine criminal underworld

Erik Matti’s two neo-noir movies are cut into a faster-paced, must-binge viewing experience

Earlier this year, director Erik Matti told NME that On The Job: The Missing 8, the sequel to 2013’s On The Job, was “an angry movie”. That also proves true of his new HBO Asia original series, which combines both films and extra footage into a heady six episodes. Over nearly seven hours, Matti increasingly outrages viewers as they tunnel deep into a twisting rabbit hole of corruption. With a cast of despicables, in a milieu where nothing is simply black or white, is everyone on the take?

Set in Metro Manila and the fictional La Paz province, the series centres on how prison inmates are hired by politicians and the wealthy to assassinate their enemies. When they finish their secret executions, they are taken back into custody until the next mission. Everyone from the penal authorities to the investigating cops are part of this elaborate, expensive cottage industry.

A deeply Filipino morality tale in the form of a stylish, bloody neo-noir, the series is as much Canterbury Tales as James Ellroy, baked in the fires of Scorsese and The Wire’s David Simon. There’s a helpful “inspired by true events” note at the start of each episode, just in case you thought Matti and screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto pulled all this absurdity from their imaginations. Episodes four through six particularly reference events that regularly make the Philippine headlines: from the Maguindanao Massacre, the phenomenon of desaparecidos (the disappeared), to the tragicomic rigmarole of executive branch inquiries. They’re all rooted in non-fiction. A scene in episode four, where a Senate witness repeatedly declares “I invoke my right against self-incrimination” might seem comically surreal, but it really happened.

On The Job HBO Series
John Arcilla in Episode 5 of ‘On The Job’ HBO series. Credit: HBO Asia

The main protagonists of this sprawling ensemble are “Tatang” Mario Maghari (Joel Torre) and Sisoy Salas (John Arcilla). Tatang, whose story dominates the first two episodes, is a prison old-timer and veteran assassin whose skill for murder is legendary. In the next four episodes we get to know Salas, a shock jock who hosts the beloved community radio show of La Paz town. Torre and Arcilla both bagged Best Actor gongs for their performances – Torre in 2013 for the first movie at the Puchon International Film Festival, while Arcilla won the Volpi Cup at this year’s Venice IFF for the theatrical cut of OTJ2.

And these acting powerhouses deliver. Torre’s detainee assassin is alternately caring and conflicted as he takes on a young, brash protégé, grappling with how he’s training his own replacement in a profession where veterans are gifted with shanks in the guts upon retirement. Meanwhile, Arcilla is radio celebrity “Manoy” Sisoy Salas, a propagandist for the incumbent mayor, though he becomes steadily disillusioned when the same politician appears to have orchestrated the execution of his fellow journalists. With Kubrickian moments of harrowing self-inquiry, Arcilla’s Salas is the more interesting performance.

On The Job HBO Series
Dennis Trillo in Episode 6 of ‘On The Job’ HBO series. Credit: HBO Asia

Unfortunately, sometimes On The Job undermines its own dramatics with distracting music curation and prickly plot points that make the protagonists look implausibly lucky, their forward movement contrived (there’s a big one in episode five). But even if the pacing sometimes drags, Yamamoto’s deft writing manages to keep the show cohesive, the narrative balls aloft in the air.

“Revenge can be a great feeling!” gleefully declares the ill-fated, honourable cop Sgt. Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez) and it’s that slim hope for payback that moves the characters in this series, even if such a mission spells disaster. That’s the ecology of anger, harming both carrier and object of disaffection, but in OTJ, The Series, the sins of the wrathful are almost a criminal pleasure to watch.

On The Job the Series is now streaming on HBO Go.

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