Female action heroes have evolved in leaps and bounds since the year 2000 emerged. The start of that decade, year and millennium saw strong female leads portraying equally strong female characters like Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series. Superhero movies such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain Marvel and The Avengers movies, also DC Extended Universe’s Wonder Woman also gave space to female heroines in their narratives.
This is why, nearly 20 years later, more female heroes emerged as action film heroes in many kinds of subgenres. Maria is one such latest example of this great trend. But what’s great about Maria is that, as polished and as action-packed as it is, it’s not a movie made from the Hollywood dream factory – it’s a true-blue Asian action movie.
A film proudly made in the Philippines, the film stars dramatic actress Cristine Reyes portraying a character against her usual type. In her homeland, she’s known more for her dramatic flair portraying a spurned wife or a feisty mistress. Maria takes her acting skills on the next level by having her portray a physically demanding role which still needs her dramatic flair to show off various sides of her character.
Reyes portrays a ferocious assassin named Lily who turned her back already on this dark trade. She needed to fake her death so her old assassin syndicate won’t follow her around. She successfully lives a new life as Maria, a doting wife and a loving mother to a young girl. But things go south when she is discovered to be alive by her old allies – notably an old lover who’s a fellow assassin, Kaleb.
Right then and there, the story heavily follows the former-assassin-turned-good trope popularized by many Hollywood films, notably Keanu Reeves’ John Wick series. Of course, something bad has to happen to the good life Maria is trying to live. When Kaleb spots her in a supposedly hit operation, he abandons the original mission and makes Maria his only mission.
Like with John Wick’s emotional journey, Maria also undergoes hers. What another motive could make a former killer kill again than revenge, right? This is what happens when Kaleb murders Maria’s husband and daughter in cold blood – right in front of her.
And with this revenge set-up, we are reminded of Peppermint, one of the latest kick-ass female-centered revenge films from Hollywood. Only that one has Jennifer Garner start as a good person gone bad. Maria unapologetically starts with Maria as one of the bad guys who decides to clean up her act.
So naturally, when her family gets sacrificed along the way, Maria undergoes another transformation and goes back to her ways. She goes into hiding first and seeks the help of her former boss and trainer, Old Man Greg.
Greg is like the father she never had. Even though we are not given concrete clues as to how Maria/Lily came to be under his wing in the past, it’s clear that the two have this father-daughter vibe reminiscent of how Filipinos come together as a “family” without being related by blood.
As with such revenge narratives of action films, Maria was able to survive Kaleb’s attack on her and her family, with the help of Greg. Even though Greg was reluctant to help her at first, he comes out of his self-imposed retirement and extends a helping hand to Maria.
He even goes as far as lending her the high-powered weapons she needs to take down Kaleb and his minions, which also includes kick-ass assassin women. But of course, this film only has room for one such woman: Maria. We get that message later as she pushes through with her revenge plan against Kaleb.
But first, she passes by some businesses run by Kaleb’s mob-like family. It turns out that they are in the business of manufacturing, selling, and distributing illegal drugs of some kind. So of course, before Maria brings down this family (or just a few members of it), she brings down part of “their house” – a factory full of their illegal operations.
It’s fairly easy to see that Maria doesn’t do anything new with the action movie genre. What’s surprising here is that the film tries to create a new generation of action films unfamiliar to the Filipino audience.
If you’re familiar with Philippine Cinema, the action films that came out of their national collection always have men in the lead, and iconic ones at that. These men portray action heroes that start as underdogs who triumph in the end. They have flaws, but they also appear impenetrable and unbreakable.
Maria breaks out of this Filipino action genre mold by remaining realistic while at the same time heightening its dramatic impact. When you see her getting punched, she becomes black and blue due to bruises. She bleeds when cut, winces when hit, and acts hurt when smashed. Now that’s realism!
As for the violence in this film, be warned that it’s highly graphic. As in very, very graphic! It takes a page out of its Asian neighbors in depicting violence on film, something is familiarly seen in Japan’s animé-saturated film culture and the noir-ish films coming out of South Korea. And this is what director Pedring Lopez aims to do.
In interviews, Lopez mentioned that these two countries are indeed some of his inspirations, as well as the old Filipino action movies, regardless if they’re considered as cheesy or over-the-top. Cinema is, after all, meant to be larger than life.
And Maria delivers this kind of action and drama combined. It helps that it has a high standard of production values as evident in the noir-inspired cinematography, the heavy rock-infused musical score, the crisp production design, the fast-paced editing pulse, and of course the excellent achievement of stunt directing.
All of these elements, plus the actors’ excellent dramatic delivery, makes Maria an enjoyable action film to stream. It’s a labor of love, something worth supporting in the region.