Seven years after that one final job, Maria (Cristine Reyes) now lives a quiet domestic life in an unnamed province. A nice big house, a loving husband, their cute little daughter, Cristine Reyes plays an ex-cartel assassin turned wife and mother, from killing people to cooking dinner.
But not for long. Her idyllic domestic milieu turns to hell when the cartel learns her whereabouts. Kaleb (Ivan Padilla), the cartel boss’s younger son and Maria’s ex, had her followed, then raids her home. And they “took the only thing that makes it a home.” And in case you haven’t seen a revenge flick before—Spoiler Alert—Maria turns the table on them in the movie’s second act.
Maria is Pedring Lopez’s follow-up to 2015’s Nilalang a.k.a. Maria Ozawa’s first (hopefully not last) Filipino feature film. And it’s a straight-up revenge action film. Take some of the best stuff from A History of Violence, a few moves from John Wick and—only the good parts in Peppermint, put them in a local setting and you got Maria, possibly the best Filipino action film in a long time.
Or at least, it’s the best among the crop of recent action pics from our shore. It’s stylish, beautifully photographed, it has well-choreographed fights, and damn it has Cristine Reyes playing “sexy but deadly” in a series of jaw-dropping action scenes. She isn’t only drop-dead sexy, she also figures in lots of edge-of-your-seat thrilling and bone-breaking fights. And she reportedly did 90% of her own stunts.
Cristine Reyes brings her A-game, not only in the fights but in the dramatic scenes as well. While the movie may sometimes feel uneven—some scenes of hammy acting, more than a few cheesy lines (“You’re death.” “I know.”), one mildly less convincing fight (Miru vs. a big guy)—it still makes for a compelling watch, mainly for Reyes’ convincing portrayal of its central character. Cristine Reyes’ Maria is a steel magnolia—she’s tough and pretty, feisty—but vulnerable.
Cristine Reyes played her character so well that she made Anne Curtis look bad. And I actually thought Anne Curtis did good in BuyBust.
The cartel, headed by Ricardo dela Vega (Freddie Webb) initially wanted the head of a Governor Villanueva, senatorial candidate, who, near the beginning of the movie, provokes the ire of dela Vega when he said some unsavory things on TV. It’s implied he’s connected to the cartel (maybe he’s in their payroll) and so the irked dela Vega put a hit on him. It’s the same politician whom Bert (Guji Lorenzana), Maria’s politically naive husband, eagerly supports because according to him, he’s the country’s only hope. Sounds familiar? I know.
Contrary to what some might have expected, Pedring Lopez and co. didn’t build a video game world where assassins have their own rules, their own unique currency. What we have here is like a manga or comic book version of our own. It’s a world where people who ran the cartel are the villains and politics is a shit show.
Helping dela Vega run the cartel are his two sons: Kaleb, whom he seems to favor more, and Victor, the ill-tempered older brother, who has an axe to grind (a bald and bearded, hence evil, KC Montero). Their lives seem to revolve only around the “business as usual,” which means drugs, killing their enemies, and drugs. And nobody smiles. But then, no one gets to tell an unfunny joke. And none of the thugs in their group are named Brando and Bogart. And no one wears denim jacket or sports a mullet. That’s a plus.
The movie’s hard R-rating is probably more than earned by the film’s first half, when the dela Vega’s are introduced mercilessly killing hapless henchmen and traitorous drug runners. Webb smashes a guy’s head with a baseball bat. Montero tortures a man in his underwear tied and lying on blocks of ice, electrocutes him Ben Tumbling-style* then shot him in the head pointblank. In another, Kaleb pulls a guy’s fingernail with pliers and stick a knife in his thigh.
(*A couple of reviews mentioned that Victor sticks a drill or soldering iron to the guy’s ass. I think that scene is similar to the one in Ben Tumbling where the cops torture Lito Lapid’s character—they stick electrodes to his balls—to make him own up to a crime.)
Balancing the heavies, is Greg (Ronnie Lazaro), an old friend, mentor, and father figure to Maria. Greg provides Maria what she needs: shelter, guns, weapons and at one point, Maria tells him, “Kailangan ko ng dress.” Lazaro’s character is kind of an amalgam of Ian McShane’s and Willem Dafoe’s characters in John Wick, Nic Cage’s Big Daddy from Kick-Ass, and, among other things, the fairy godmother.
What about the fight scenes? Well, the fight scenes are the real highlights of the movie, along with Cristine Reyes superb performance. There’s bathroom brawl between Miru (Jennifer Lee) and Maria, a sequence where Maria razes a drug warehouse to the ground, an impressive fisticuffs in a public market, and yes, a final battle in the port. If you’ve seen BuyBust and like the never-ending fights, you’d find a lot to like here. If you were disappointed with BuyBust, like me, you’d love the cleaner, clearer fights in Maria.
Maria is a damn fine action movie. And here’s hoping Cristine Reyes, Ronnie Lazaro and the whole team behind the movie—fight coordinator Sonny Sison, cinematographer Pao Orendain, editor Jason Cahapay and director Pedring Lopez—come back with a sequel.