The vengeful female assassin is a recognisable character. Perhaps because they’re not as common, or because it plays against the idea of the fairer sex, Lady Snowblood and her ilk (such as The Villainess) stand out more than their male counterparts. Maria sticks its own knife in the lady killer body of work and while the title character herself does the job with competence, the film around her does not reach the same standard.
On a macro level Maria looks fine. Cinematography is vibrant and scenes are easy to follow, while still employing some interesting angles on occasion. Zoom in though and the polish fades a bit, with some sluggish action and distracting digital blood. The chief failing though is the story, undoing the visual clarity with an overly dark tone, muddy plot machinations and a swathe of unsatisfying loose ends.
Maria herself (Cristine Reyes) is fittingly the strongest part of the story. An opening raid on a mansion during a dark and stormy night demonstrates her ability with hand to hand combat, firearms and especially the film’s signature weapon, the hook-bladed karambit. In the present day, together with her husband Bert (Guji Lorenzana) and daughter Min-Min (Johanna Rish Tongcua), Maria leads a life of nearly domestic bliss, although tension over Bert’s work makes it feel more down to earth. Call it domestic charm then. The collision of Maria’s past life as a brutal killer and current life as a family woman feels weighty enough to land hard, as the stakes are given enough time to build. That inciting incident comes a fair way into the running time though and scenes of the life Maria stands to lose have to be broken up with something. That something is the gang Maria formerly worked for and their own, much more fiery, family drama.
Syndicate boss Ricardo De La Vega (Freddie Webb) has some rats in the ranks. Also, his two chief enforcers hate each others’ guts. Kaleb (Ivan Padilla, or Germaine De Leon as he is known in his American acting roles) is initially tasked with killing the traitors while Victor (KC Montero) is left to seethe bitterly. These two captains each command a horde of goons and a couple of lieutenants — less practical takes on Maria’s former job, typically attired in tight pants, crop tops and heels. It’s a parallel plot that feels like a worse version of the crime drama running through The Raid 2. There’s none of the sense of tragedy and betrayal, just a truckload of swearing and screaming and torturing. Golly gee, the torture is a lot. The film seeks to avoid monotony by varying the methods of inflicting pain, which says something. These nasty scenes are largely pointless and their lack of purpose is even remarked upon by the torturers. Absent any logical place in the plot, they mainly serve to induce audience squeamishness, beef up the bad guys chops’ and make Maria’s dicing and slicing with the karambit seem softer in contrast.
While the torture drops off once Maria becomes a bigger concern for the gang than any traitors, the nonsensical plot still keeps hobbling the film. The moment that sets Maria’s course for the rest of the runtime is genuinely harrowing, but is undercut by a puzzling line of dialogue from the main antagonist, that a later flashback only makes more confusing. The internal gang strife continues, if any viewer can be invested in the fates of any of these horrible people. There’s a little more character motivation, namely jealousy, in the showdown between Maria and the replacement for her position in the gang, Miru (Jennifer Lee), but it’s essentially a warm up for the person Maria really wants to kill.
Once Maria is in revenge mode she’s basically going out on missions to break both stuff and people, then returning to restock and get patched up at a bar owned by retired gangster Greg (Ronnie Lazaro). He’s a less refined version of Ian McShane’s hotel owner in the John Wick films, and brings a welcome touch of levity to this harsh setting. The whiskey chugging already present in the movie escalates now that a bar is a location for multiple scenes, the bottles conveniently placed the old school way, or out of focus enough, to provide plausible deniability against any accidental brand recognition.
The action of the film also picks up once Maria is on the rampage but it doesn’t cut the mustard, although it does cut a lot of necks and other body parts. Stunt director Sonny Sison’s work came off great in Buybust, where the frantic, sloppy scrapping suited the desperate and cramped confines. Here it feels average, perhaps to cover for actors inexperienced with fight work. It’s not bad, but the bar for modern action films is so high — see Jailbreak or Wira for example — that it suffers in comparison. The choreography shines best when displayed with unusual framing. A bathroom brawl becomes more interesting when it winds up wedged in a cubicle shot from overhead and a portion of Maria’s raid on a warehouse observed from afar with a still camera gets artistry points without having to rely on great execution of the fight moves. Sonnny Sison himself appears on screen as a fight instructor/punching bag in a scene that clearly displays the limitations of the actors he is working with. In contrast, the one on one fight at the film’s climax gets a pass for being slipshod as it takes place in a mud patch in the rain.
Maria’s final assault on the gang at a dock feels like it might achieve critical mass in the lead up, but her personal mission and the internal wrangling among the gang members end up being resolved separately. One stand-out element in this section are the very punchy gun sound effects and there’s a bit with Maria and a shotgun that requires no anti-hero one-liner to make it cool. On the downside of the soundscape, the music here and elsewhere throughout the movie is trying way too hard to be hardcore, which just adds to the overblown mean streak in the movie. The extensive song list features tracks such as “Casket Snakes” and “Artful Slaughter”, which gives a good impression of what they sound like.
In the rainy final shot, the camera pulls up and away in a reversal of the opening shot. Having come all that way, through all that bloodshed, the final irony is that Maria herself doesn’t understand the cruel coincidence of how exactly her two lives came smashing together. Only the audience will, if they think back to those early scenes of gentle domestic dispute. This could have been the point, but there’s nothing in the film itself that really supports this reading. It feels like yet another missed opportunity.