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-[Film Reviews]-, Filipino Cinema, OCEANIAN CINEMA

‘Maria’ (2019): Neither Personality Nor Physicality

Directed by: Pedring A. Lopez || Produced by: Vic del Rosario, Kelly Uy

Screenplay by: Yz Carbonell, Rex Lopez || Starring: Cristine Reyes, Germaine De Leon, KC Montero, Ronnie Lazaro, Freddie Webb, Guji Lorenzana

Music by: Jessie Lasaten || Cinematography: Pao Orendain || Edited by: Jason Cahapay || Country: Philippines || Language: Filipino, English

Running Time: 90 minutes

I have nothing against narrative formula or filmmaking clichés in theory. Character archetypes, classical narrative premises, traditional plot beats, and evocative visual motifs become established for a reason: They tend to work. Being an action movie fan in particular, I appreciate the violent efficiency and mayhem of a self-contained story limited to a single location (e.g. Assault on Precinct 13 [1976], Die Hard [1988], Dredd [2012], The Raid [2011]), not to mention films that prioritize close-quarters-combat and tactical shootouts with a plethora of blood and gore. Those hardcore action staples are often prefaced by boiler plate, high-concept stories that require minimal to moderate budgets (no expensive computer generated imagery, thank you) and stock characters like mafia hitmen, paramilitary commandos, hardboiled cops, gangster overlords, extremist vigilantes, and so on.

As such, I gave the Netflix Filipino action vehicle, Maria, a chance despite its somewhat bland trailer, as it reminded me of both John Wick (2014; a former underworld assassin [Cristine Reyes, Keanu Reeves] is forced out of retirement due to attacks on their family) and The Raid (e.g. the Oceanian backdrop, excessive gore, a plethora of edged weapons, etc.). The genericity of Maria’s premise and its titular star’s backstory did not concern me, but where the movie fails is its execution of that generic filmic outline. Directorial execution of established genre conventions is how I judge filmmaking, and writer-director Pedring A. Lopez’s execution of traditional action movie formula lacks both narrative and stylistic heft on all accounts.

Top: Though certain action sequences of Maria, such as this one between lead Cristine Reyes (left) and minor villain Jennifer Lee (right), have been praised by even negative reviews, I found the film’s violence subpar at best. Middle: Reyes (left) meets with Ronnie Lazaro (right), who functions similar to Ian McShane in John Wick. Bottom: Reyes (right) performs better in the movie’s dramatic, family-oriented 1st act, but that pedestrian drama is unremarkable.

For one, Maria’s script, while not an unsalvageable mess, sets the movie on a slow, plodding, deliberate pace that kills any sense of momentum throughout the narrative. The film’s plot-points are not random, per se, but Maria features a variety of unnecessary sequences that should’ve been excised altogether (numerous gratuitous torture sequences, for instance), while the pedestrian backstory (Reyes’ family life, retirement, etc.) of its star is overindulgent and yields little payoff beyond the minimal justification for her later rampage. Bad pacing is problematic in any film, but in action movies a lack of narrative inertia can be a death sentence, which explains why Maria feels like it’s two hours long despite its 90-minute run-time.

Connected to Maria’s flat, dull progression is its stilted drama and underwhelming cast. Both protagonist and antagonists (Germaine De Leon, KC Montero, Freddie Webb, Jennifer Lee) lack personality and emotional gravitas. Reyes can portray a middle-class, suburban housewife and mom just fine, but lacks the range for a grizzled, tortured hitwoman. Likewise, Maria’s overextended supporting cast, namely its villainy, are pale imitations of Berandal’s (2014) colorful characters, who oozed screen presence and personality. Lopez’s blocking, editing, and overall construction of his scenes don’t help his cast, either, as every dramatic sequence feels as flat as Reyes’ character arc and begins and ends with little clarity or flow. So many dialogue-heavy sequences in particular just feel off.

Most of the aforementioned problems could be somewhat forgiven if the movie’s action set-pieces, its supposed main attractions, delivered the goods, but they don’t. While I appreciate Lopez’s commitment to action clarity and bloody, explicit violence, the movie’s lack of chaotic handheld camerawork (i.e. “shaky cam“) and its decent choreography don’t hide how unconvincing its cast are as action stars, with lead Reyes suffering most of all. Whether the cast didn’t have enough time to train or the choreographers needed more time to prepare inventive sequences, cinematographer Pao Orendain’s capture of cinematic violence lacks physicality, impact, and buildup to match its moody lighting and neat sets. Even the majority of the movie’s blood and gore are digital eyesores, which further underscores Maria’s impotent style and weak imitation of far greater action films.

In the end, it is not Maria’s obvious inspirational nods to other, much better movies that offend me so, but rather its sheer incompetence at most every basic element of action filmmaking. My complaints with Maria are not its basic ingredients but rather its preparation and presentation of them: Its slim, 90-minute story is longwinded and slow, its cast lack charisma and their characters, emotional heft, and its key genre elements — the “action” part of this action movie — feel so lame and amateurish as to make the film pointless. The most I can say of Maria is that, despite its bad pacing, its short length and limited scope didn’t waste my time like the three hour-long windbag that was Betaal (2020) or Netflix’s plethora of bloated Marvel superhero shows. Maria is bad, but it’s the sort of bad Netflix subscribers can tolerate.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: While not as sleazy as Polar (2019), as self-aggrandizing as Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), or as visually chaotic as Mile 22 (2018), Maria fails to reach even the mediocre heights of those middling action movies given its lackluster screenplay, poor cast, and bland direction. A film can survive without inventive creativity, but not without style, and action films least of all.

However… I appreciate the movie’s explicit violence and grounded, relatable combat, even if they don’t work as well as they should. Reyes shows promise as a dramatic actress even if she’s no great shakes as an action heroine.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED

? No, Victor, don’t avenge your brother. He got what was coming to him. I also don’t want a sequel to this.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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