10 Underrated Pinoy Action Movies
An ode to pows and wapaks
(SPOT.ph) We laugh now at the incoherent bluster that Hollywood action cinema has turned into—shaky-cam confusion, cartoon violence and all. But in its heyday, Pinoy action films gave us a few things to laugh at, too. A few of those classics are riddled with lurid caricatures, sexist double-standards, casual misogyny...yet we take it all in with no shred of irony. Our combat aesthetics are nothing like the ultraviolent minimalism of Japan, and is instead closer to the graceless brutalism of Don Siegel (of Dirty Harry fame) with a lot of street thrown in. In the right hands, it can and does attain a brutish poetry all its own.
The films on the list, give or take a few, are the ones that go off tangent. Some still indulge the clichés—a cackling villain here, Old Testament retribution there—but this time in the service of characters less hewn from cardboard. The list detours at one point into the '70s, takes in two mongrel specimens that expand the definition of what an action film can be, and ropes in a few indie films that genre purists may balk at. Those films, we argue, nail the essence of the genre long after it was proclaimed "dead."
Kastilyong Buhangin (Mario O’Hara, 1980)
Action Star: Lito Lapid
In a nutshell: The story of young love, separated by circumstances and...uh, prison time. The dramatic tag line for the movie says it all: "They have everything two people can share. Except tomorrow."
Only Mario O’Hara would be nutty enough to graft a pop musical onto a prison melodrama and package that odd cocktail as a Lito Lapid vehicle about doomed love. The scene where Lapid takes down a roomful of goons by sliding on the wet tiles of a communal shower room should be enshrined in set-piece nirvana. Even if your first response is to stifle a chuckle, the sequence is so amazing that when you at last let that smirk loose, it would’ve turned into a whoop of joy.
Ang Utol Kong Hoodlum (Deo Fajardo Jr., 1991)
Action Star: Robin Padilla
In a nutshell: Robin Padilla is Robin Hood...lum. He's a petty criminal who is forced to kidnap a rich young woman to save his family. And yes, he falls in love with that young woman.
He has more range now, but in his bad boy prime, the younger, coltish Robin Padilla milked his one note "street" cred into iconicity. He's not so much a mere action star, but almost a folk hero of the thug life. The best scene is when he casually strolls into the enemy’s lair, drinking kerosene from a gin bottle then spews fire on them.
Utol (Toto Natividad, 1995)
Action Stars: Cesar Montano, Victor Neri
In a nutshell: As the title suggests, this is the story of brothers—one who lives life as a thug and the other sporting a weird mustache. Their paths eventually cross. Action ensues.
This one sticks closer to the genre playbook than anything else on this list, but is somehow shot through with more nuance and pathos. Ricky Lee and Jerry Sineneng, who wrote the screenplay from parts of an obscure American TV movie, bring an outsider's sensibility to bear on the catalog of tropes it indulges. The chemistry between Montano and Neri is so electric, you could hang everything on their swagger and get away with it. Like Ang Utol Kong Hoodlum, it's not under-seen, but the way it aces Action 101 deserves a nod. Also, that final act train shootout is a blast.
Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, 2009)
Action Star: Felix Roco
In a nutshell: Another story of brothers involved in gang wars, but this time, with state-sponsored extrajudicial killings.
It's essentially an extended chase scene through a gangland slum. Layer that with an evil presence you never really see except as a blurry photograph on a campaign poster and a disembodied voice on the radio. If its making the list rubs you the wrong way, think of it as stripping the genre down to its guts, complete with anxious motion and constant threat of violence.
Ishmael (Richard Somes, 2010)
Action Star: Ronnie Lazaro
In a nutshell: So there's this cult...and there's this guy who just got out of prison...and a girl asking for his help. Expect...blood.
Director Richard Somes has been working this patriarchal strain of male cinema from the get-go: When he calls this neo-Western-in-all-but-name his Valentine to the domestic action film, he only means it’s the one that wears its heart on its sleeve. Ishmael works best as a showcase for his fluency in expressionist delirium and mythopoeic hyperbole—so that when Ronnie Lazaro duct-tapes two machetes on his broken arms before going postal on what seems like an entire town, you’re either given over or beyond its reach.
Carnivore (Ato Bautista, 2008)
Action Star: Carlo Aquino
In a nutshell: A brutal look at the lives of frat neophytes.
Carnivore shares some tangential parallels to Mike De Leon's Batch 81, which no one would qualify as an action film. But where De Leon uses fraternity culture as a lens to interrogate fascism and torture and the regime it was made under, Bautista and collaborator Shugo Pracio use it to delve into the male psyche and its predisposition to violence and brutality. The macho posture as primal scream, taken one way, is the quintessence of action cinema.
Dugo ng Birhen: El Kapitan (Rico Maria Ilarde, 1999)
Action Star: Monsour Del Rosario
In a nutshell: Zombies!
Rico Ilarde makes horror films with a weird and lurid imagination, which overshadows how much of a pulse he has for action. But if you pay enough attention, you'll see that he flaunts it in nearly every film. In Dugo ng Birhen, he places a full-on action star at the center of a pulp adventure involving zombies and a host of references to other action movies. The film is almost two decades old, but its fight scenes still have a rigorous coherence that make all those shaky-cam fetishists look weak.
Ekis (Erik Matti, 1999)
Action Star: Albert Martinez
In a nutshell: A benevolent kidnapper falls for his kidnapee. Very Stockholm Syndrome.
His maximalist aesthetic notwithstanding, something the sinewy noir of OTJ served well, Matti has arguably more game scaled down. This ensemble piece about small-time crooks on the lam is conceived with such raw, almost fearless enthusiasm, you tend to overlook what is most likely the clammy hands of studio interference. High points include the testosterone dynamics of the exceptional cast (Martinez, Raymond Bagatsing, Ace Espinosa) and its assumptions that you'll be able to catch up without the dialogue devolving into expository pandering.
Return of the Dragon (Celso Ad. Castillo, 1974)
Action Star: Ramon Zamora
In a nutshell: A man with a violent past just wants some bloody peace, but all he ever gets is the bloody part.
Ramon Zamora was a comedian who parlayed his resemblance to Bruce Lee into an auxiliary career as an action star, making a string of soulless but profitable chop sockey pastiches and at one point, being shortlisted to play Lee in the biopic (Dragon) that would star Jason Scott Lee decades later. The trump card Celso Kid pulls here is tonal, the way everything is saturated in this bleak, humorless, fatalistic gravity, taking the standard revenge plot and twisting it into a grueling exorcism of trauma. Not that he forgets he’s making an action film. The entire final act is set in a desert where Zamora takes on...the world.
Bagong Hari (Mario O’Hara, 1986)
Action Star: Dan Alvaro
In a nutshell: It's an allegorical tale of political rivals in an unspecified town and the people caught in their play for power. We follow the life of Addon Labrador, the son of the mayor's right-hand man. He happens to be really good at beating people up.
In the beachside fight sequence that opens Bagong Hari, two shirtless men fight to the death over a golden butterfly knife. Sounds nuts, but many say this film is O'Hara's lost masterpiece. The way he abstracts the action in Bagong Hari—closing in on the combatants, then freezing the frame on every contortion of pain—alludes to peculiar rhythm of the narrative. This indicates an understanding of effective editing, and more importantly, the reaction shots to the punches (among others) aid in deconstructing the action film for what it really reluctantly is: a glorification of pain.
Author's disclaimer: The list is by no means complete, and if any of this tickles your fancies, you can slake your thirst further by looking for Celso Ad Castillo’s Asedillo, Lino Brocka’s Santiago, Tikoy Aguiliz’s Biyaheng Langit, Chito Roño’s La Vida Rosa and Boy Golden and, of course, Erik Matti’s OTJ, which you really ought to have seen by now.
Dodo Dayao is the director of Violator. He lives in Quezon City.