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Maria (2019)

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.