Skip to content

Plot: retired assassin is force back into the trade again…

Maria was probably the best female-centric action movie of last year next to the surprisingly brutal and efficient Furie (2019) from Vietnam. Maria is as lean and mean as they come, and pulls absolutely no punches. Or rather it does, and whether Cristine Reyes is wielding a gun, or kicking and punching her way out of the trouble there’s an instant familiarity about what it presents. It’s too early to say whether Pedring Lopez is the new Cirio H. Santiago as he has yet to carve out a niche for himself. Judging from Maria he certainly isn’t shy about paying homage to his country’s well-documented history in exploitation cinema, action and otherwise. More importantly, though, Maria is bound to make an international star (and action hopeful) out of Cristine Reyes. Maria is François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) reimagined as a no-frills action flick with Reyes as its titular angel of vengeance, and proudly continues a 30-year old Filipino cinematic tradition.

A female-centric action movie from the Philippines? Color us shocked. It’s not as if the country has around three decades of tradition to draw from. Hollywood has always been notoriously slow on the uptake. In 1990 Luc Besson brought the female vigilante to the international stage with his Nikita, but it wouldn’t be until twenty years later before the female action movie became a legitimate subgenre onto itself. Prestige features as Anna (2019), Tomb Raider (2018), Hanna (2011), and Colombiana (2011) make it look as if it’s a fairly recent trend, and for Hollywood indeed it is. However, the Philippines has long been a bastion for female empowerment and the female action star has been a staple of domestic cinema for longer than it ever was, or has been, in Hollywood. Women acting as judge, jury, and executioner is an old staple of Filipino cinema, one more or less spearheaded by writer-producer-director Cirio H. Santiago with his TNT Jackson (1974), She Devils in Chains (1976), Naked Fist (1981), Naked Vengeance (1985), Silk (1986) and Angelfist (1993). Maria carries on that legacy and, surprisingly, wasn’t co-produced by either Besson or Jing Wong.

Maria (Cristine Reyes) is living a quiet suburban life in Manila with her ambitious campaign worker husband Bert (Guji Lorenzana) and young daughter Min-Min (Johanna Rish Tongcua). While out on a campaign event Maria is captured on film by members of the Black Rose cartel. When said information reaches kingpin Ricardo De la Vega (Freddie Webb) he has his second-in-command Kaleb (Germaine De Leon, as Ivan Padilla) dispatch a bunch of goons to even the score on his seedy unfinished business. Maria used to call herself Lily and was employed as an assassin for the cartel. After she refused to fulfill a contract she faked her own death to escape the cartel’s ire. In the melee with armed Black Rose goons Bert and Min-Min end up dead and Maria is forced to return to the life she thought she left behind. She contacts her old mentor Greg (Ronnie Lazaro) to help her devise a strategy that will bring the cartel down. Her true target is not old man Ricardo or ambitious underling Victor (KC Montero) but Kaleb, the man she once called her confidante and lover. When the Black Rose sends Miru (Jennifer Lee) and her goons to pressure Greg into talking his security detail Bogart (Nelson Montives, as Nhelson Montives) is barely able to slow her down. In retaliation Maria kills Miru in a club. Taking the fight to the enemy Maria faces wave after wave of Black Rose minions before facing Kaleb himself. This time Maria won’t be so kind.

The man behind Maria is Pedring A. Lopez. Lopez never took any formal film school training and worked his way up. He started out as an editor for local Philippine TV networks and in the advertising industry while teaching himself visual effects and motion design. His hard worked paid off as he became an award-winning music video director and TV commercial director. His first feature was 408 (2014) from where he moved on to The Seed (2015), the supernatural horror The Entity (2015) with Japanese AV star Maria Ozawa, and Darkroom (2017). Maria is Lopez’ first venture into action and he seems to handle that far better than his previous excursions into horror. None of Lopez’ prior features seem to have been all that well received but Maria seems to be the break he has been longing for. To its credit Maria never devolves into the half-joking tone of Bring Me the Head Of the Machine Gun Woman (2012), and it never captures the zeitgeist (or that classic Filipino tone, for that matter) the way Benjamin Combes’ zany Commando Ninja (2018) did for over-the-top American action from the 1980s, but as an action movie it’s about as lean and mean as they come. The only thing missing is that Maria never engages in any Arnis de mano, or Filipino stick fighting.

Maria is played by rising star Cristine Reyes. Reyes - the Filipino answer to somebody like Fernanda Urrejola, Diane Guerrero, or Gina Rodriguez - got her start as a contestant on GMA’s StarStruck and cut her teeth on Filipino TV. Her first feature of note was the horror Patient X (2009) after which she graduated into drama and romance with Working Girls (2010), No Other Woman (2011) (the second highest-grossing domestic film that year), The Reunion (2012), and Trophy Wife (2014). Her most high-profile starring role thus was in the Emilio Aguinaldo biopic El Presidente (2012) and via the comedy Abay Babes (2018) she arrived at Maria. Reyes has graced the covers of MOD, Cosmopolitan, Preview, Metro, and Maxim. Cristine seems to have no formal background in martial arts, although you wouldn’t be able to tell from the slick and graceful action choreography and editing. Whether she’s playing a loving mother, a sexy femme fatale, or a cutthroat assassin Reyes possesses quite a range for a television actress. Obviously action is just one of the genres she can do, but she’s far more than just that.

With the fading of action stars as Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude van Damme movies like Maria and Furie (2019) are needed to revitalize the genre. Maria is pretty much what a contemporary Naked installment should look like, and probably what Naked Soldier (2012) should have been in the first place. We would have preferred some more hand-to-hand combat routines and some martial arts out of Reyes, but the punishment she metes out here is more than just serviceable. Would it have benefitted from Cristine shedding some of her clothes? Not likely. It’s custodian to one shower scene and it's never meant to be tantalizing in the first place. The topless kickboxing or – action movie is something of a Filipino invention, and chances of it returning are nil since Cirio H. Santiago’s passing in 2008. As near as we can tell nobody has risen to the task of usurping his throne as a writer, producer, and director one-man industry. Maybe Pedring A. Lopez is that messiah the Filipino scene has been longing for? We can only hope that Maria wasn’t a fluke but the prelude to a long career in niche cinema.

Plot: martial arts instructor investigates the disappearance of her reporter sister

Naked Fist (released in North America as Firecracker) is an American-Filipino production helmed by producer duo Roger Corman and Cirio H. Santiago starring scandily-clad platinum blonde exploitation wonder Jillian Kesner. Derivative to the point of exhaustion Naked Fist not only is a barely disguised remake of TNT Jackson (1974) – its entire reason d’etre hinges upon the fact that it extends one scene from the earlier Santiago production into a feature length presentation. Dubbed “the world’s first erotic kung fu classicNaked Fist is neither erotic, nor a classic… It remains a prime example of Filipino exploitation cinema at its best.

For the first time, and certainly not the last, prolific Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago – a specialist in low budget Vietnam war movies, women-in-prison flicks and post-apocalyptic Mad Max (1979) ripoffs – remakes his earlier TNT Jackson (1974). Filmed from a screenplay co-written with co-star Ken Metcalfe, Naked Fist recycles the plot from TNT Jackson, and Robert Clouse infinitely superior Enter the Dragon (1973). Not content to riff on better movies Naked Fist lifts most of its music from Shogun Assassin (1980), and the trailer is set to a bootleg rendition of B-52’s ‘Planet Claire’. Santiago would plunder the same well a third time with Angelfist (1993) replacing Jillian Kesner with late shampoo heiress Cat Sassoon.

Keeping up Santiago’s tradition of female-centric actioners Naked Fist stars former model Jillian Kesner (who holds a B.A. in business from Colorado university). Kesner appeared in Happy Days as Fonzie’s girlfriend Lorraine, The Rockford Files, T.J. Hooker, and Mork & Mindy. Kesner was married to cinematographer Gary Graver at the time of Naked Fist and Raw Force (1982). Graver, who directed adult features under the alias Robert MacCallum through the 1980s, was a cinematographer who collaborated frequently with Jim Wynorski lending his talents to Alienator (1990), Sorceress (1995), and many others. Both tried restorating the unfinished Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind. Following Graver’s passing in 2006, Kesner continued work on the preservation of Welles’ cinematic legacy. Kesner passed away from staph infection, a complication from leukemia, in 2007.

Naked Fist claims that Kesner was the 1981 “grand prize winner at the Black Belt Olympics”, but nothing seems to substantiate that claim, neither are there any indications that she had any training in the field of martial arts, or any experience in hand-to-hand combat. For all intents and purposes, Kesner is and was no Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan - and certainly no Angela Mao. Naked Fist was released through Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, who ordered the filming of two extra scenes to capitalize on Kesner’s attractiveness. Director Allan Holzman was brought in to helm said two scenes: a warehouse brawl that has Kesner gradually loses clothing, and the second a not particular riveting simulated sex scene. Despite having the absolute bare minimum in terms of plot Naked Fist frequently stalls, when not coming to a complete standstill, whenever Kesner is required to shed fabric, engages enemies in combat, or does both at once.

Martial arts instructor Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) travels to the Philippines to investigate the mysterious death of her reporter sister Bonnie (Carolyn Smith). No sooner has Carter entered her hotel in Manila and she’s accosted by two robbers while wearing nothing but her knickers. A scene that was first seen in earlier TNT Jackson, and one that Santiago would reuse once more in Angelfist (1993) with Cat Sassoon and the breathtaking Melissa Moore. The screenplay never bothers to establish whether the two hotel thugs were working for the drug ring, or whether it was just a random encounter. Judging that the same thing happen to Keith Cooke in Albert Pyun's Heatseeker (1995) one concludes that this sort of thing is typical in the Philippines. In the San Francis Bar Carter meets barman/owner Pete (Pete Cooper, as Peter Cooper) and Rey (Rey Malonzo, as Raymond King). For no apparent reason a brawl breaks loose. Having meted out swift punishment to all that assail her, Pete and Rey agree that Susanne is “all right”. Deciding to investigate Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton) after obtaining a picture of him on her sister’s camera, Rey suggests Carter uses wanting to learn Arnis as a front for her investigation. Ever so eloquent, Susanne calls Arnis de mano “the thing with the sticks” when talking to Rey’s master while visiting his training camp in the nearby jungle.

At a legitimate martial arts venue Carter initiates contact with Donner under the pretense of looking for a place to work out, and to make money to pay for her travel expenses. “She’s good. Too good,” one character observes, “she’s a martial arts teacher. 6th dan black belt," one that "owns her own dojo in L.A.” In the opening fight on the theater stage Omar Camar, one of the most senior Aikido instructors in the Philippines, is seen dishing out punishment. Watching a master at work Carter simply shrugs it off as “this kid’s stuff” and assures Donner that she’s up for it, “if the money’s right!” Erik Stoller, Ken Metcalfe in a role he inhabited once before in TNT Jackson, urges Chuck to remain vigilant, but he’s soon smitten with the high-kicking hottie. In Angelfist, Santiago’s second reiteration of TNT Jackson, Metcalfe has but a minor role. Meanwhile Erik’s girlfriend Malow (Santiago regular Chandra Romero) has her reservations about the way Stoller conducts his illicit business.

In a stunning error of judgment that will ultimately spell his demise Donner decides to show The Arena, a venue for high-stakes clandestine underground death matches that was seen earlier in the Cannon produced Enter the Ninja (1981), to Carter. While continuing her investigation into the circumstances surrounding her sister Bonnie’s death Susanne bones up her Arnis de mano knowledge at the training camp of Rey’s master all while doing some boning of her own to keep Donner at bay. Not letting sleeping dogs lie Carter is soon accosted by a number of police thugs, led by one Tony (Tony Ferrer) warning her to stay away from Donner and the drug cartel, Carter continues her investigation despite the obvious level of resistance. The thugs soon get a first-hand experience of Carter's Naked Fist.

Having catched her breath Carter is then accosted by Grip (or Griff in some prints, Santiago regular Vic Diaz) and his thugs, who come armed with a cobra and what he calls “truth serum” and want to know her true motives. In a scene later recreated in the John Woo directed Jean-Claude van Damme actioner Hard Target (1995), Carter punches Grip’s snake out cold and throws it in Grip’s face. Chuck happens upon the aftermath of the fight, and decides to take Susanne to a training camp for The Arena combatants. After partaking in one of the matches Carter leaves disgusted, and is followed yet another group of thugs. Fighting off goons one by one Susanne is forced to take off her dress and heels before slipping into a nearby warehouse. It is here that the first of two Allan Holzman directed scenes are spliced in. During an economic chase through a hallway, and for no apparent reason other than to be included in the promotional trailer, Carter bends over alluringly doing a “come hither” finger-wag while looking seductively at the camera. Moments later Susanne kicks one thug into a running circular saw in a scene later refurbished in the Andrew Davis directed Steven Seagal actioner Under Siege (1992).

A thug in a Hawaii shirt lunges at Susanne dangerously with a sickle slicing her front-fastening bra open - and miraculously not hurting her in the process - while remaining sturdily in place. Carter discards her bra and Naked Fist then recycles the brawl from TNT Jackson wherein Playboy model Jeannie Bell engaged in topless kung fu. In what must be the movie’s most clever sight gag the topless fight is situated in front of boxes labelled Rack Master. Whether this particular sight gag was envisaged by producer Corman, or directors Santiago and Holzman, was never disclosed. In what is either a brilliant piece of reverse psychology, or alternatively a display of Carter’s obtuseness – as she has pieced together clues that Erik (and Chuck) are responsible for her sister’s death at this point - she beds Donner in a drawn-out, über sleazy, neon-lit 4-minute sex scene that includes foreplay with knives, that was helmed by Allan Holzman at behest of Roger Corman. During the sex scene Kesner says, in a line scribbled straight from an adult feature, “I can feel the blood pulse inside your head” – she never specifies which head. At this point Malow has informed Susanne that she’s a deep undercover narcotics operative, and that it was Erik that ordered Chuck to kill Bonnie. Carter confronts Donner in The Arena for a match to the death killing him by dual ocular impalement.

Naked Fist (or Firecracker, depending on your preference) exists merely by the grace of its leading actress. Jillian Kesner was a beautiful, athletic and curvaceous woman that acted reasonably, and held her own in a variety of roles. While Naked Fist sold itself on the dubious merit as “the first erotic kung fu classic” it was hardly erotic, or a classic, despite the ample amount of nudity. Why Kesner never ended up working with Hawaii action guru Andy Sidaris is a question for the ages. Next year’s genre-hybrid Raw Force allowed Kesner to flex her muscles both as an actress and as an athlete. Completely relentless as far as pace is concerned Naked Fist excels neither in the martial arts department, nor in its daft attempts at eroticism. Jillian Kesner is frequently in various stages of undress, but that alone isn’t enough to keep attention to what otherwise is a pedestrian but high-octane chop sockey action movie. Not remotely intelligent or thought-provoking by any stretch of the imagination Naked Fist has all the brawn, and none of the brain. What it does have is boobs, and Kesner is not afraid to flaunt them when it matters.