The Movie Waffler Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - ALPHA: THE RIGHT TO KILL | The Movie Waffler

Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - ALPHA: THE RIGHT TO KILL

alpha: the right to kill review
A crooked cop exploits an impoverished young man to help him rip off drug dealers.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Brillante Mendoza

Starring: Allen Dizon, Elijah Filamor, Angela Cortez, Baron Geisler, Jalyn Taboneknek

alpha: the right to kill poster

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte notoriously invoked a ruling allowing the nation's police to terminate anyone suspected of dealing drugs with extreme prejudice. It sounds like the starting point of some dystopian '80s sci-fi action b-movie, so it's no surprise that the Philippines' premiere filmmaker, Brillante Mendoza, has fashioned a gripping thriller from this premise.

alpha: the right to kill review

In the metropolis of Manila, one dirty cop, Espino (Allen Dizon), has found a way to make his force's new 'shoot first, ask questions later' policy work to his advantage. With the cooperation of an impoverished young informant (or 'Alpha', as is the regional cop slang), Elijah (Elijah Filamor), Espino regularly helps himself to drugs and money during raids, knowing that no witnesses will be left alive to expose him.

While raiding one such drug den, Espino comes across a bag filled with cash and coke. Pocketing the money himself, Espino gives the coke to Elijah to sell off and return the profits his way. When Espino's superiors discover that the bag photographed at the scene is now mysteriously unaccounted for, Elijah's life is placed in danger as his exploiter-in-crime sets out to silence him.

alpha: the right to kill review

With handheld digital footage taking us through the bustling streets, police stations and crack dens of the Philippines' capital, Alpha: The Right to Kill is aesthetically very much a graduate of the Michael Mann school of crime drama, but thematically it's political in a way Mann's films rarely are. The drug raid that opens the film is the sort of exciting, CG-free set-piece we so rarely see in American cinema anymore. Mendoza employs quick cuts and shaky camera without ever confusing the viewer or obscuring the action.

Francois Truffaut famously posited the idea that there are no anti-war movies because you can't depict war on screen in a way that isn't exciting. The same might be said of cop movies. You can write a crooked cop as an utter bastard on the page, but once you cast someone as charismatic as Gene Hackman in the role and put him behind the wheel of a high speed car chase through the streets of Manhattan, the message becomes somewhat blurred.

What Mendoza does to combat this unfortunate dynamic is to keep his central crooked cop at a distance, focussing instead on his reluctant partner and potential victim, Elijah. Mendoza introduces us to Elijah's grim home life, finding him shacked up in a makeshift room with his wife and infant child, literally buried under mounds of trash. Despite their horrific living situation, they seem happy with their lot, and their affection for one another is palpable. When Elijah hides a small bag of coke in his child's nappy, we might momentarily tut tut at such an action, but Mendoza makes it clear this is an act of desperation, an existential necessity. In what feels like a middle finger to those who ignorantly view the war on drugs as a reductive matter of good versus evil, the film's one moment of human charity comes when a drug lord's heart is touched by the smiling face of Elijah's oblivious infant and gifts Elijah some money to spend on his daughter.

alpha: the right to kill review

Much like Mike Figgis did with Richard Gere in Internal Affairs, Mendoza has here cast a very wholesome and handsome actor as his duplicitous villain. When the film opens - as Espino greets and makes small talk with everyone in his police station, an affable movie star smile gaping across his face like a crack in a third world sidewalk - Dizon is so damn charming in that enigmatic matinee idol that we're immediately fooled into believing that he has to be the hero of the story, that he might be the one to expose the corruption in his department, Serpico style. 30 minutes later we want to punch his pearly white teeth down his throat, and Mendoza's film is bubbling over with so much societal rage, you suspect the filmmaker would like to do the same to his country's current controversial leader. Wouldn't we all?