In an era where right-wing “strong men” from across the world dominate news cycles by beating their chests and boasting of their ruthlessness, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte managed to set himself apart by openly bragging about the extra-judicial killings he had orchestrated across the nation. This was the “War on Drugs” as hardcore conservatives across the planet would like to see it fought, but which would be political suicide to ever openly call for in most parts of the world. The “War on Drugs” itself is a term which the police chiefs in Brillante Mendoza’s latest film continually parrot, a nod to the American ancestry of their particular brand of chaos. That the president himself can brag of having directed his citizens to murder one another hints at the special kind of hell Alpha, The Right to Kill is engaging with.
Working within the slums of Manilla, Espino (Allen Dizon) is a high-ranking drug cop, plotting the police’s most lethal drug raids and quietly helping himself to a cut of the money and merchandise on the side. Elijah (Elijah Filamor) is a small-time dealer who now acts as Espino’s informant as well as his partner in crime. Both are struggling to raise their children in cramped, crowded homes on incomes that don’t nearly merit the daily danger they face.
Aside from one extended sequence in which the police bust a local gang leader, shooting anyone on sight the entire way through his apartment building before arresting anyone who happened to be nearby at the time, Alpha mostly turns its focus towards the drudgery which makes up the majority of Espino and Elijah’s lives. Being a corrupt cop or a drug-dealer-cum-police informant is not glamorous or exciting here, just another way to get by. Espino is constantly dealing with workplace bureaucracy and bloviating, hypocritical higher-ups. Elijah has to continually find new, time-consuming ways to transport his wares across the city, turning a meagre profit at the end of all his endeavours. Both are held up every few blocks by half-hearted stop-and-searches from apologetic officers. At home, at work, on the street: neither gets to move through the world easily. For all the time they spend risking their lives, neither reaps much in reward.
The most interesting part of Alpha is the attention it pays to the ingenious methods deployed by Manilla’s drug smugglers. They aren’t the kind of flashy schemes befitting master criminals—in fact they’re all comedically lo-fi: parcels tied to carrier pigeons and hidden inside potatoes and diapers. But they are clever, and the film delights in their cleverness.
Sadly, Alpha’s insistence on the more mundane side of life amidst a drug war ends up rendering the film itself a little mundane. The tension so drains out of it during the middle stretch that, by the time the big bang at the end comes around, it comes off as more of a whimper.
Ross McIndoe is a freelance writer currently living in Glasgow alongside two small turtles and one small lady. He writes about most aspects of popular culture for publications like The Skinny, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Film School Rejects. He can be found on Twitter @OneBigWiggle.
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