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Plot: vacationers face mercenaries, zombies, and cannibalistic monks.

The eighties was the last great hurrah for classic Filipino exploitation. As the 90s dawned Hollywood reinforced its grip on the international market with big budget, special effects-driven event movies that no little independent could ever begin to compete with. The decline of grindhouse theaters as well as the ever-expanding home video market cut directly into profit margins that were already razor-thin to begin with at this point. South America and Asia had served American producers and distributors well, but the eighties would signal the end of that too. In those waning days of dwindling budgets and shrinking international distribution elder institutions like Cirio H. Santiago, and Bobby A. Suarez managed to churn out their last classics. Santiago even was strong enough to survive the nineties. There was no doubt about it, though, the Pinoy exploitation industry, once so indefatigable and resilient, was starting to run on fumes. Like any good fighter it wouldn’t go out on a wimper. Raw Force was one of those sub-classics that kept the Philippines afloat in those dark sullen days.

The men behind Raw Force were Lawrence H. Woolner and Edward D. Murphy. Murphy was a professional boxer and bit part actor, and no stranger to the Philippines. As an actor he had gained valuable on-set experience working on Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968) from director duo Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero and as a producer Woolner was involved with the Antonio Margheriti giallo Naked You Die (1968). Half a decade later he would act as a presenter on Beyond Atlantis (1973). By the eighties he and his brother Bernard had firmly established Dimension Pictures. Under that banner he had produced several Stephanie Rothman features and now the company was looking for a rookie to write/direct a script based on an idea Larry had been kicking around. This project would combine two then-hot commodities that did good business at the grindhouses: martial arts and zombies. It’s almost as if Woolner saw Tsui Hark’s We’re Going to Eat You (1980) and couldn’t wait to do a Filipino-American action/martial arts take on it. There are enough similarities to warrant the comparison and to be mere coincidence. The cast Woolner was able to attract was the stuff cult cinema dreams are made of. To make it even better: Raw Force is just non-stop delicious gory fun.

The members of the Burbank Karate Club - Mike O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney, as Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden) and Gary Schwartz (John Locke) – have reserved a place on the cruise of foul-mouthed gun-fetishist Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell) and his often booze-addled business partner Hazel Buck (Hope Holiday) for their vacation. Also on the boat are vacationing platinum blonde LAPD SWAT member Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner, as Jillian Kessner) and her fellow blonde cousin Eileen (Carla Reynolds). Dodds is in the habit of making confused mildly-racist remarks to his Filipino first mate about opening a Chinese restaurant while soft spoken martial arts expert Go Chin (Rey Malonzo, as Rey King) slaves away in the kitchen. Before setting course for the South China Sea Dodds first embarks on a tour of the nearby ports where the occupants are free to engage in heavy partying. It’s here that Cookie, Eileen, John, and Gary go watch a martial arts competition while others go boozing at the Lighthouse Bar. Mike and Lloyd Davis (Carl Anthony) visit the local brothel (or “cathouse” as they call it here) The Castle Of 1001 Pleasures where madam Mayloo (Chanda Romero) overhears that they’re tourists and hands them a leaflet about Warrior Island.

At the Lighthouse Bar thick German-accented, twitchy-eyed, middle-aged accountant Thomas Speer (Ralph Lombardi) (who sports the fashion-conscious combo of horn rimmed glasses, a white suit, and a Hitler mustache) is engaged in matters pertaining his jade import business when he overhears the American tourists. Seeing an opportunity Speer decides that no matter what the cost the Americans must end up on Warrior Island (an island bypassed by the Japanese during World War II as it, according to local folklore and superstition, was the place where disgraced martial artists commited suicide) as he has an understanding with the head monk (Vic Diaz) to provide warm bodies for his sexslave trading – and transport for his drug trafficking ring. When Speer’s merry goons try to kidnap Captain Dodds at the bar the incident inevitably ends up inciting an all-out brawl.

Speer’s goons are thwarted in their attempt forcing the German to wait it out. Upon nightfall he and his goons assault the ship in numbers leading to massive casualties and the vessel’s fiery destruction. The Americans manage to escape but are forced to make landfall on Warrior Island (whether it’s close to Savage Beach or Taboo Island is, sadly, never made clear). When Mike recognizes one of the slave girls as Mayloo, the proprietress of a brothel he and Lloyd visited on the mainland, it threatens to expose the monks’ true motives. As the situation deteriorates the strangers must learn to work together if they are to keep out of the the clutches of the ruthless mercenaries, the jaws of the sword-wielding undead, and the maws of the cannibalistic monks at the source of all the horror on the island.

And who exactly is in the cast, you wonder? Pulp mainstay Cameron Mitchell, famous around these parts for his roles in Blood and Black Lace (1966), The Toolbox Murders (1978), Supersonic Man (1979), and Blood Link (1982). Jillian Kesner from Evil Town (1977), Starhops (1978), and Naked Fist (1981). Carla Reynolds from Night Games (1980), Bits and Pieces (1985), and Maniac Cop (1988) and Don Gordon Bell from Cleopatra Wong (1978), Naked Fist (1981), Stryker (1983), Wheels of Fire (1985), Naked Vengeance (1985), Silk (1986), and Red Roses, Call for a Girl (1988). Joe Pagliuso from Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Jerry Bailey from American Ninja (1985). Then there are television actors Geoffrey Binney, Hope Holiday (Mitchell's then-girlfriend), John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, and Robert MacKenzie as well as Filipino exploitation veterans Rey Malonzo, Chanda Romero, and Vic Diaz whose combined filmographies are too extensive to detail. If all of that wasn’t enough there are brief cameos from Carl Anthony from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), and The Sinister Urge (1960); Hong Kong martial arts pillar Maggie Li Lin-Lin (李琳琳), Jewel Shepard from H.B. Halicki’s The Junkman (1982), and Return Of the Living Dead (1985); Camille Keaton from Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), and Mike Cohen from the Weng Weng spy caper For Your Height Only (1981). Where else are you going to see a cult ensemble like this?

The good part? Raw Force is just as crazy as it sounds, and it’s never apologetic about it. During the Lighthouse Bar brawl one particularly dedicated exotic dancer continues her routine dutifully, in what was either left in intentionally or a case of very sloppy editing, seemingly unfazed by the property destruction happening around her. The boat scenes is made campy by the fact that the water around it is completely still. Evidently all the scenes, both on-deck and off, were filmed stationary. During the onboard party director Murphy spends inordinate amount of time pointing his camera at the various female cast members in advanced stages of undress. In true exploitation fashion each cast member develops a sudden aversion towards fabric and the camera takes a leering look at the heaving bosoms and bottoms of various nubile bit part actresses and no-name extras. The party segment not only will have you counting familar faces, there’s enough female nudity to satiate anyone’s craving. On top of all that, there’s a truly wonderful amount of gags, both visual and otherwise, that can be spotted during this section. Once the group makes landfall on Warrior Island Raw Force pulls out all stops as Murphy rips through action movie clichés as martial artists, cannibalistic monks, and explosions all happen in quick succession. That the piranha attack scene was borrowed liberally from Piranha (1978) makes it even better.

Boasting a star-studded cast of American hopefuls and Filipino veterans as well as a wide array of cult cameos Raw Force is almost guaranteed to have you in stitches. The action direction and fight choreography was handled by Mike Stone with exception of the Lighthouse Bar brawl that Murphy choreographed himself. The only thing Murphy would direct after Raw Force would be Heated Vengeance (1985). Meanwhile he continued acting in bit parts in, among others, the comedy 3 Men and a Baby (1987), the crime epic Goodfellas (1990), and the thriller Doppelganger (1993). His claim to fame is playing thirteen different guest roles in as much episodes on Law & Order (1991-2000). Producer and director of photography Frank E. Johnson would go on to do second unit cinematography on Predator (1987). Allegedly the original cut ran about 105 minutes but to get most out of their investment Raw Force was trimmed down to a more grindhouse- and audience-friendly 86 minutes. When, and if, there’s ever going to be a fully restored director’s cut is anyone’s guess. A sequel, purported to have starred Jonathan Winters as the ex-husband of Hope Holiday's character and Mitchell reprising his role as Captain Dodds, was planned (hence the “to be continued” in the credits) but as fate would have it, Woolner tragically passed away some three years later in 1985. Understandably, the promised sequel never materialized. Some things just are better without any sequels. Raw Force is one of those things.

Plot: PDEA officers fight to survive a night-time bust in the slums.

It’s impossible to argue with nearly 40 years of cinematic tradition. BuyBust is Filipino through and through. Described on the regular as, “Die Hard in the slums” this adrenaline-pumping two-hour actionfest might very well be as incendiary Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary swansong Battle Royale (2000). BuyBust packs more than enough punch, a lot of bang, and some very bloody kills. With an amiable lead, a likeable supporting cast, and impressively brutal action direction and choreography this might very well be the Filipino answer to The Raid (2011). Whatever the case, BuyBust is a modern classic, ensuring that the spirit of Cirio H. Santiago lives on.

The star here is Anne Curtis who debuted in TGIS (1995), apparently a veritable phenomenon on Filipino television. Since then she has remained a pillar of Filipino television as well as dramas and romances of every stripe. One such dramas was No Other Woman (2011) where she starred alongside Cristine Reyes. It’s interesting that both would eventually get their own no-holds-barred action epic. Much blood has been shed in these pages how we loved Reyes as the sexy retired assassin in Maria (2019). In the interest of honesty Curtis isn’t too shabby of an actress – or at least she’s able to acquit herself admirably in what is a pretty physical but unthankful role. Reyes had the benefit of a more developed character in Maria (2019) and Veronica Ngo had some rather excellent action choreography in Furie (2019). That’s not even mentioning Fernanda Urrejola in Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman (2012). Not only had she to juggle wafer-thin writing with a fantasy-fuel fetish constume, but even before her recurring role in Narcos: México (2018-2020) it was clear she was destined for international superstardom. Reyes and Curtis have yet to break through globally.

If Maria (2019) was about well-financed criminal empires with far-reaching political connections in the wealthier neighborhoods of Manila then BuyBust is about drug cartels driving the destitute and the poor into crime, about the slums and the political systems that create them, the widespread corruption of the police force and their associated government officials. Maria (2019) was all about shiny cars, beautiful women, and palatial villas. BuyBust offers a dissenting voice towards the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the inherent futility of the Philippine Drug War and the promises of the restoration of social order through violence and superior firepower. BuyBust is about the lower classes, the forgotten, the ignored. More than anything it’s a polemic against poverty, of disenfranchisement, and a lack of upward social mobility. Maria (2019) looked and sounded impeccable, in BuyBust on the other hand you can smell the mud, the stale beer, the smog – the abject poverty in the slums is palatable, and so is the destitution of the people living there. BuyBust absolutely pulls no punches whatsoever and the picture it paints of the Philippines is not a pretty one, indeed.

The Philippine Drug War rages on. Detectives Rudy Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) and Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino) have leaned on small-time drug dealer Teban (Alex Calleja) during interrogation convincing him that giving up the present whereabouts of elusive drug kingpin Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde) is in his own best interest. Meanwhile disgraced police officer Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) has survived bootcamp and is selected by aspirant team leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri) to join his elite PDEA anti-narcotics squad. After an operation to lure Biggie Chen out of hiding at Rajah Sulayman in Rizal Park fails to produce the desired results Teban ensures them that he can be found at the barangay Gracia ni Maria, supposedly drug-free by Dela Cruz’ own admission, in Tondo, Manila. The squad splits into a Alpha and Bravo teams led by Lacson and Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera), respectively. As Teban meets with Chongki (Levi Ignacio) to get an audience with Biggie Chen Manigan deduces that the entire thing is a set-up but her words fall on deaf ears. When their indecisiveness leads to the senseless killing of village elder Elmer (Eddie Ngo) their inaction provokes the community, always in the crossfire of the drug war, not just into disobedience but into a veritable violent civil uprising. Now in the midst of an all-out war with both the cartel members from Biggie Chen as well as Gracia ni Maria’s civilian militias the only question is: will Manigan survive the night long enough to find the corrupted one in her ranks?

For the Die Hard (1988) comparison to work it BuyBust takes far, far, far too long to let Nina Manigan face off alone against hordes of enemies. Likewise, for the Battle Royale (2000) comparison to hold up none of the other PDEA officers (beyond Manigan and Rico Yatco, obviously) are defined and explored as characters enough. Instead of seperating them early on and having each “team” fight toward a common destination or objective, BuyBust is content to throw them into the meatgrinder and be done with it. It’s difficult to care about anybody when everybody looks, acts, and sounds the same. Had BuyBust focused on the Die Hard (1988) angle and left Manigan as the sole survivor of the raid about an hour in, then it could spent the next hour having her fighting the cartel. Apparently this what Matti was going for because towards the third act Manigan is finally taking on armed goons in her soaked dirt-covered, bloodstained tanktop. What an incredible opportunity was missed here. Chocolate (2008), Maria (2019), and Furie (2019) worked so well because we knew exactly who Zen, Maria, and Hai Phượng were, what drove them, and what the stakes were. In BuyBust it’s hard to care about anybody except Manigan and Ratco. Mostly because Manigan and Ratco are actual characters, and not cyphers or rough abstracts like the remainder of the PDEA team. For Manigan to have but 20 minutes of solo action borders on criminal. When, and if, there’s a sequel, it better focus on agent Nina Manigan, exclusively.

What really somewhat dampens BuyBust is its reliance on all the tricks of modern filmmaking. That is to say, frequently action scenes are not only marred, but nigh on impossible to follow, thanks to the rapid-fire editing, needlessly shaky camerawork (it doesn’t make it realistic, it makes it hard to follow), and terrible framing. What good is an action scene when you can’t see where everybody is, and how persons and objects relate to each other in space? Other times the camerawork is smooth and fluent almost making BuyBust look a video game playthrough. This is especially the case when the PDEA officers are scaling roofs and/or jumping from one wave of goons into the next. Fights break out but since we’re not familiar with the surroundings it’s hard to care. Literally dozens upon dozens of armed assailants are slaughtered over the course of two hours, but none feel as satisfying and earned as John McClane killing Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) or Shuya finally gunning down Kitano in Battle Royale (2000). In both instances every kill feels earned and represents a milestone. Here the great majority feel just like flesh for the grinder, one that must constantly be fed. Neither are there any boss level fights or heavies that Manigan must defeat. Perhaps it could be sensory overload with so much happening at the same time. More likely it was just a case of wanting to do everything and cut nothing. Overkill, quite literally, in fact.

Anne Curtis is cast against type for once, and like Cristine Reyes and Fernanda Urrejola the beautiful girl makes a lean, mean killing machine. However she wouldn’t be nearly be as much of a blunt force weapon if it weren’t for the fluent action direction and stomping fight choreography from and by Sonny Sison. BuyBust was filmed in 56 days and prior to principal photography Curtis underwent rigorous training in knife fighting, close corner combat, and was instructed in the ways of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali at the Scout Ranger Training School. As a natural result of this, she elected to do most of her own stunts. BuyBust can pride itself on employing some 309 stuntmen and 1,278 extras during production. The special effects work by Guy and Pong Naelgas is deliciously old school and appear to be largely practical-based, which is always a plus. Obviously there are digital enhancements and post-production effects but they never are intrusive or distracting. Director of photography Neil Bion for the most part is able to hide the budgetary limitations and rarely does a shot look amateuristic or cheap. The music from Malek Lopez and Erwin Romulo is an exciting mix of indigenous Filipino music, pounding club music, and smoked out bluesy rock and metal.

Since BuyBust Matti has directed the supernatural horror Kuwaresma (2019) (released internationally as The Entity) and the comedy A Girl and A Guy (2021) and so far no BuyBust sequel seems imminent as of this writing. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. In times wherein any title must potentially launch a franchise BuyBust so far hasn’t been diluted by any sequel or the expectations of a potential franchise. For one thing it would be great to have Cristine Reyes, Anne Curtis, and Fernanda Urrejola heading up their own action blockbuster. Is there anything more Filipino than the female action hero? It's probably one of the country’s most enduring cinematic traditions alongside topless kickboxing – and completely insane martial arts movies. We’d love nothing more than for Anne Curtis than to take on these kinds of roles on a semi-regular basis and when the screenplay fits her. Maria (2019) and Furie (2019) were slick and brutally efficient in their minimalism BuyBust on the other hand goes big. A production like this is the perfect antidote against Hollywood tentpole action features. BuyBust is brooding, grim, and exciting – what more do you want?