Furie wins. Thank you for reading!
Once again, I am inclined to compare and contrast two similar movies with their difference being one works and the other fails at almost everything it tries. This time, I’ll focus on two martial-arts, female-lead action movies with roughly the same plot and same “limitations”, but end up with different concepts and executions of the same question: What is “cool”? While these movies have so much in common (at least on a surface level), the way they set-up their world, their characters, their visual styles, and their action sequences, could not be more different.
Both movies have basically the same premise and hook. Maria is about a former assassin, living a family life after retiring from that world, when that world comes knocking back and endangering her family, she has to respond and protect it by rediscovering that part of herself once more. Furie is about a former gangster who run away from that world to give birth to her child that she now raises in a poor fishing village; when that child is abducted, she has to use her skills in a frantic race against time to save her kid. I could have switched those two plots and even those of us who saw the movies would buy the changes. The hook is also the same: Female-lead, The Raid-esque, martial-arts movies from countries people don’t expect to see such movies from on Netflix – this part is debatable in my opinion, but I clarify on Netflix so I can feel more okay with it. Both of these movies had similar budgets (around a million dollars is what I could find) and they both ended up on Netflix; point being, one could be forgiven for mixing up the two, but in practice they are vastly different in every way.
Maria makes a fatal error right off the bat: It sees its “limitations” as exactly that and tries to ignore them, rather than use them as tools or address them. Its story of a former assassin going after the people she used to work for/with, in order to save her family, is a cliché and an earned one at that; there are a bunch of these stories and even a few that have a female lead. The fact that this is a Filipino movie makes zero difference to how cliché it feels; there is no uniqueness to it, nothing that I haven’t seen elsewhere done much better. The setting even feels like stock-standard movie house with stock-standard junkyards and village plazas. The story is a gangster story with lots of unnecessary filler that either goes nowhere or is straight-up abandoned by the lackluster end. Furie, on the other hand, spends most of its runtime in a small and poor fishing village, utilizing the setting to have the characters deal with unique problems; for example, this is a modern setting, but the characters have no easy access to phones, transportation, or guns. This is purposefully set up in the beginning and the movie delivers some thrilling sequences and fresh ideas.
For example, Furie has an extended, thrilling, chase sequence where Hai Phuong (protagonist brilliantly portrayed by Veronica Ngo) chases after her daughter – whose being abducted by boat – alongside the river, while being attacked by mobsters and needing to find transportation, shortcuts, and directions in order to keep up; the concept for the sequence is not unique, but the setting and execution are. She has no phone, no money, and is in an improbable race against time to save what matters to her. Maria has no scene or moment like that; the story is (at least until the ending) about corrupt politicians or gangsters, until it isn’t anymore and its about Maria kicking ass. But, she does it in the most boring locations; she has a drink at a bar, then she goes to a club and has a fight in the toilets, wow what originality! I know this is nitpicking, but I truly found none of the locations, the characters, the situations, to be interesting or unique in any way.
That difference is indicative of Furie’s biggest strength and Maria’s most fatal weakness. Furie has a script that – while generic and is only interested in moving towards action scenes only – uses the setting, the action, and the characters to tell Hai Phuong’s story. Through this conviction, Veronica Ngo had a lot of material to work with – and delivers a great performance – the characters are interesting and demand attention, and the action can have emotional stakes that the audience cares about. Maria has no intrigue, no investment, no stakes for the audience, because she is boring; out of these two movies, Maria gets to the action sooner, but those 10 minutes it spends setting everything up were a bore and the rest didn’t get much better. It feels as if there was no story to communicate through Maria, no arc or point to her besides “she is the protagonist in a martial-arts movie, so she kicks ass”. In contrast, Furie is about a mother not knowing how to reconcile with her past, not knowing how to raise her daughter to be better, and not knowing how to trust her to find her “better”; it takes some time to set this up and a lot of it drags a bit and is not that great, but by the time her daughter is taken, I care for Hai and her daughter and I am invested in their characters.
That’s not to say that Furie has less action than Maria; it has more quality action and better pacing and better engagement. Some of the action sequences in Furie are worthy of examining and dissecting to learn from them. While the neon style has become a bit generic for some, I still find the visual splendor it can create to be a strong pull, and I think Furie nails that aspect. Action sequence don’t just look good though; they are exhilarating. There is some great sound design throughout the movie, the camera work is fantastic and shows the action clearly while also being dramatic and enhancing the impact of those scenes; Ngo, in particular, deserves praise, not only for doing some of her own stunt work, but also for how much effort she put into humanizing her character. Hai feels pain and she gets exhausted, she gets scared, and she gets emotional, as often as she gets heroic and switches on her ass-kicking mode. Maria is stoic, for the most part; this isn’t one of those movies where the protagonist never gets hurt, because she does get hurt and she does have moments of humanity, but the flaw is not the acting or the consequences of set-pieces, as much as the writing. I don’t care about Maria, because she was never interesting or had a believable relationship in the movie. As far as the action goes then, I liked their commitment to show actors doing their part and steady cam with longer takes, but since the stakes were non-existent it was a non-frustrating decision instead of a pleasing one. They did use a lot of “cheats” to fake some scenes into looking longer than they were, but they were really obvious which really annoyed me; I don’t usually go looking for small details like these, but when I am bored and the story is so bad it is not even progressed by the movie, I am going to start noticing details.
In conclusion, I really liked Furie and I really disliked Maria, despite how similar they look on the surface. Furie is a known quality by now and Maria is so buried in Netflix’s algorithm, that I had to go looking for Furie and then go through 2 “more like this” sections to find it, and it wasn’t worth the hassle. I didn’t get into each movie’s specific traits, like Furie being a bit campy and goofy was more a miss than hit but it gave it a charming quality, or Maria having terrible acting from almost all supporting characters, but hopefully you can make up your own mind on those for Furie and not care enough for Maria. In this fight of fighting movies, Furie gave Maria a KO from the first punch.