You can certainly bet from a local perspective that a film like Pedring Lopez’s new thriller, Maria, has been a rarity in the Philippines for years. There’s been actioners, but not as much and certainly not to the same measure and scope as other productions, and gladly, there’s been a pretty visible sea change in recent years in that regard. For this, a film like Maria is a reasurring sign of better times ahead with much deserving ceremony.
Maria begins with our titular lady assassin, donned in black and descending unto a quiet home as she lays waste to the perimeter of armed guards at every turn. Her name is Lily (Cristine Reyes), and she’s the killer of killers, a prime leading member of the Black Rose – enforcers of the De La Vega crime cartel. Her story fast-forwards seven years later when she’s far and apart from heyday as a cold-blooded killer.
Living the idyllic suburban life as Maria, married to Bert (Guji Lorenzana), a politically active community organizer with whom she shares a daughter, Min-min (Johanna Rish Tongcua), her day-in-day-out routine is filled with talk of eating healthy, the occasional marital disagreements over what takes precedence at home, and happy endings – that’s about as far as it all goes until her determinedly much longer-term happiness get uprooted.
Fight-or-flight mode kicks in along with the rest of her potent technique and thus, her first instinct is to survive the streets and fend off the henchmen chasing her, as well as protect her family. Before she can do so, in comes Kaleb (Germaine De Leon), seedy underworld wannabe prince of crime and Lily’s old flame, suddenly bursting into her home. Still embittered by her unceremonial departure from the Black Rose after so many years and with a frothing need to let her “know what it’s like”, he eventually does, and you can imagine what that entails.
Bearing this in mind, Kaleb hunting down his former flame and her newfound family would be the last thing on the mind of her former employer, Kaleb’s father and De La Vega head honcho, Ricardo (Freddie Webb), were it not for him having to worry about duplicitous local politicians who’ve sought his aid in the past now sticking it to him in the public eye. To date, it’s a headache in a series of headaches that Ricardo otherwise entrusts Kaleb to handle, despite the criticisms and albeit quiet ambitions of Ricardo’s more measured lieutenant, Victor (K.C. Montero).
Maria is effectively left with nothing to her name and forced to leave it all behind to exact justice against Kaleb and his men. Seeking the reluctant aid of her former mentor, Greg (Ronnie Lazaro), she’s at least found herself a makeshift hideaway at the only place Ricardo and his men cannot fully touch – that is, by law of agreeement. In the course of this, her goal is now clearer than ever: to take stock of her rations, re-up her skillset with Greg’s secret arsenal, and essentially finish what Kaleb started the second he decided that playing dead for seven years wasn’t enough of a hint by his once and still disinterested ex.
Conceptually, Maria, is a film you’ve likely already seen. It’s as revenge-driven as it gets and often forgoes more imaginative direction for some of the more unavoidable familiarities of a revenge-centric tale. The challenge, as always and with any film, is in the approach, of course, and thankfully we have a director like Lopez who knows how to tell a story and find his footing accordingly.
Much of it is ado with the casting of Reyes, fifteen years into her film and television craft and now being handed a meaty action role for the first time. Coupled with some serious tethering and training by action director Sonny Sison who has been on the warpath to breathe action cinema life into the Philippines for about five years now, Maria benefits with a first-timer in Reyes who delivers, in my view, one of the best action movie performances of the year.
Lazaro’s role as Maria’s “still” retired mentor, Greg, serves palpably for a role that further establishes a refreshingly familiar, intriguing scope for the story that cosigns the film’s organized crime millieu. Shameless John Wick reference aside, he’s our Winston, of sorts, holding his own in the underworld with an important role to play in the far greater criminal network as he quarterbacks Maria‘s violent journey from the comfort of his barstool.
De Leon’s portrayal as the incorrigible Kaleb is a nepotistic and incorrigible gangster with a cowardice air about himself, but he’s more than an empty suit and can throw down as much as any badass in his world. His latest right-hand is played by actress Jennifer Lee who stakes her claim as elite Black Rose killer, Miru, whose presence alone signals some pretty pot-stirring moments between her role and that of our title actress; the dichotomy between them is very clear, present and fun to watch.
Webb plants his feet well into the principle villain role of De La Vega crime boss, Ricardo, often having to reassure leadership opposite dissenting voices. In whole, his word is the gospel, and any individuals disapproving of this is likely to get a bat to the back of their skulls. Montero bares witness to it all as the albeit obliging Victor, who adds to the film’s antagonism in pretty prospective fashion by the third act.
The violence is an ample feat and one of the film’s stronger suits. One of Lopez’s specialities in directing is in horror films and so his application of blood and gore in any action scene is tantamount to what Maria tries to accomplish. It’s not so gory as to try and rival a film like The Night Comes For Us, but there’ll be plenty of red to take with you in your memory banks before the movie is over, and courtesy of Sison’s fight choreography, Maria guarantees you’ll walk away invariably entertained.
Some major plusses here go to the film’s score coutresy of composer Jesse Lasaten and the musical stylings of Mr. Bones & The Boneyard Circus – parallel to the film’s pacing and energetic upkeep as the plot unfolds further in. The film’s dark visages and cinematography grant the film it’s veracity in its packagaing of some of the most commercially viable and memorable tropes adhered to by most contemporary actioners today.
That Maria is a low-budget production did nothing to affect the hopeful and visionary scope Lopez wanted to achieve. At best, Maria hands to viewers a pulsating thrill-ride that not only adds a new action heroine to the current cadre of female action stars like Julie Estelle, Danai Gurira, Jennifer Garner, Veronica Ngo and BuyBust star Anne Curtis, but also elucidates why it is films like these deserve more local nourishment.
With Maria now a box office hit in the Philippines since March and its current stake on Netflix beginning May 17, it’s worth noting this latest treat from Lopez also makes a great case. for a sequel. For this and considering that Reyes isn’t protesting doing more action roles for the foreseeable future, then neither am I.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.