Due to a handful of factors, it’s easy to equate Pedring Lopez’ new action film Maria to Erik Matti’s 2018 BuyBust. Both hail from the Philippines, they feature similar color palates, both have a particular mean streak, and they even share stunt choreographer Sonny Sison. And thanks to a single, but significant plot point, it’s also going to garner comparisons to Kiet Le-van’s Furie from earlier this year.
But while it’s possible to lump these movies together—there are also parallels to John Wick among other current action favorites—it does the film a disservice. Maria shares DNA with these genre compatriots, but it watches like an especially brutal ‘90s era throwback. Complete with techno-heavy nu-metal-scored fight scenes and clubs full of decade-appropriate dance-floor lighting.
From all appearances, Maria (Cristine Reyes) has a normal life. She has a husband and a child and it’s all very vanilla domestic bliss. Except for the fact that she’s a former cartel assassin who faked her own death to escape her old life. But when her former associates recognize her, this old life of vicious drug lords and political corruption comes calling, and her one-time pals are not particularly pleased to see her.
And by “not particularly pleased,” we’re talking fingernail pulling, head stabbing, anus-torturing kind of feelings. Maria doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to violence or brutality. It’s all slick execution and candy-coated aesthetics, but this is a movie that’s definitely not afraid to kill children. The plot is less a rescue mission than a flurry of grief-driven vengeance on the part of a mother who has everything taken from her, and she does not have a warm or nurturing response.
Maria hits hardest for hardcore action fans. The fights are well-staged, if a bit over-edited, but Reyes handles bludgeoning her way through the criminal underworld well. There’s a nice hallway fight and a bathroom stall brawl, always a crowd pleaser. It does hit a few genre clichés, like a climactic torrential downpour, but they’re easy to look past. It may not climb to formal highs of say The Raid or The Night Comes for Us—what does though?—but it’s polished and strong. Reyes is your new action crush, and if she wants to continue making this type of movie, that’s something worth getting behind—and just FYI, the door is left open for sequels.
It’s outside of the action where things can be rocky. Reyes has the physicality down, but some of the emotion falls flat, and while the early scenes of familial happiness are necessary to propel the heroine into action, it takes a while to build to that, and it’s all fairly rote, which doesn’t help matters. The story touches on themes of duality and double lives, but concerns like these largely fall by the wayside un- or at least under-developed.
As the narrative builds towards the conclusion, it also pauses too often between action beats. Scenes with Maria and her former mentor, a pseudo father figure, add depth, emotion, and characterization, providing welcome texture. But the script from Yz Carbonell and Rex Lopez spends too much time on an inter-mob power struggle that’s largely unrelated and uninteresting. There’s also a political corruption angle that always feels like it’s going to become important thematically and plot wise, but never does. Some of this probably carries more weight in cultural context and relates to Duterte’s draconian regime, but there’s nuance that doesn’t necessarily translate for outsiders.
Maria is Lopez’s biggest, most ambitious movie to date, and considering the fact that Netflix picked it up—it drops on the streaming giant later this week, on May 17—it’s also likely to be his most widely viewed, at least in the U.S. This is also a team worth keeping an eye on. If Lopez and Reyes continue to crank out this type of stylish, vicious action, that’s something fans of this type of movie should get excited about.