The original version of a shorter piece I did for Spot.PH which you can find here.
We laugh now, at least I hope we do, at the incoherent bluster Hollywood has turned their iteration of action cinema into, all shaky-cam confusion and cartoon violence like some bastard love child of Michael Bay and Luc Besson with a videogame for a brain. But in its heyday, our own, and rather ubiquitous action cinema gave us a few things to laugh at, too, even vilify, not least being the laziness of its set pieces but also the lurid caricatures, the sexist double-standards, the casual misogyny, the same old eye-for-an-eye claptrap. Growing up watching these films on TV, though, I was in gleeful thrall, taking it all in with virtually no shred of irony. A tremendous amount of it was crap, sure, but nostalgia tends to be a lot more forgiving.
Our combat aesthetics are of course nowhere near as intoxicating as the balletic anti-gravity of Hong Kong or the ultraviolent minimalism of Japan. It’s closer to the graceless brutalism of Don Siegel with a lot of street thrown in. And in the right hands, it can and does attain a brutish poetry all its own. Lofty words, perhaps, but this isn’t merely the nostalgia talking. If it were, the list below would be rife with films like Muslim .357 (FPJ), Ulo Ng Gapo (Rudy Fernandez) and Notoryus (Victor Neri), personal favorites that hold up rather well, notwithstanding my biases and their excesses. But instead, the films on the list are, give or take a few, the ones that go off tangent, that are underrated by dint of being underseen, that you probably didn’t realize were action films, and would hotly debate its inclusion. The fun stuff, if you will. Some still indulge the clichés, sure, a cackling villain here, Old Testament retribution there, but this time in the service of characters less hewn from cardboard. And much as the hand-to-hand still tends to go on forever, in the few instances where there is actual hand-to-hand, it’s often glorious. The right hands, yeah.
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 post-studio independent films that genre purists may balk at for being included but are at the very least spiritually kindred, nailing the essence of the genre long after it’s been proclaimed dead.
Let’s do this, then.
10. Kastilyong Buhangin (Mario O’Hara, 1980)
Only Mario O’Hara would be nutty enough to graft a pop musical onto a prison melodrama, package the odd cocktail as a Lito Lapid vehicle about doomed love then make it all somehow mesh. 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.
9. Ang Utol Kong Hoodlum (Deo Fajardo Jr., 1991)
He got more range when he got older but in his bad boy prime, the younger, coltish Robin Padilla could play that one note that was the whole of his range like a gunslinger, milking his street cred into iconicity, not so much a mere action star but almost a folk hero of the thug life. My favorite scene here is when he casually strolls into the enemy’s lair drinking kerosene from a gin bottle then spews fire on them. Enter the dragon, something like that. Far from under-rated perhaps but sort of essential.
8. Utol (Toto Natividad, 1995)
This one sticks closer to the genre playbook than anything else here but is somehow shot through with more nuance and pathos than you’re used to. Ricky Lee and Jerry Sineneng, who wrote the screenplay from parts of an obscure American TV movie, bring an outsider sensibility to bear on the catalog of tropes it indulges, leeching it of its dimwitted crudities, leaving its stars with a lot of room to maneuver. And the chemistry between Montano and Neri was so electric, you could hang everything on their swagger and get away with it. Action Film 101, really, which is what the film mostly does anyway. Like Ang Utol Kong Hoodlum, this is nowhere near under-rated, and certainly not under-seen, but it’s become one of those genre touchstones that’s stupid to omit from lists like these. That, and the final act train shootout is a blast.
7. Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, 2009)
Essentially an extended chase scene through a gangland slum oppressive 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, all anxious motion and the constant threat of violence.
6. Ishmael (Richard Somes, 2010)
Somes has been working this patriarchal strain of male cinema from the get-go that 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 it’s heart on it’s sleeve. Works best as a showcase for his fluency in expressionist delirium and mythopoeic hyperbole, and 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. I’d succumb.
5. Carnivore (Ato Bautista, 2008)
Another left-field choice, sure, and one with tangential parallels to Batch 81, which no one would qualify as an action film, not least because it doesn’t have the visceral immediacy Carnivore does. But where Mike De Leon was using fraternity culture as a lens to interrogate fascism and torture and the regime it was made under, Bautista and collaborator Shugo Pracio are using it to delve into the male psyche and its predisposition to violence and brutality: the macho posture as primal scream, which, taken one way, is the quintessence of action cinema.
4. Dugo Ng Birhen: El Kapitan (Rico Maria Ilarde, 1999)
Rico Ilarde makes horror films with a weird, lurid, Lovecraftian imagination no one else can touch, that tends to overshadow how much of a pulse he has for action, despite the way he flaunts it in nearly every film he’s made. This is where he full-hogs the mash-up, a zombie film that’s also a pulp adventure, closer to Doc Savage than George Romero, with a full-on action star at its center. The film is almost two decades old but its action scenes still have a rigorous coherence that make all those shakycam fetishists come off like the wankers that they are.
3. Ekis (Erik Matti. 1999)
His maximalist aesthetic notwithstanding, something the sinewy noir of OTJ served well, Matti has arguably more game scaled down, and despite one set piece in this ensemble piece about small-time crooks on the lam (a shootout in a swimming pool) defying logic to the point of almost pulling you out of the film, the rest of it, from the testosterone dynamics of the exceptional cast (Martinez, Raymond Bagatsing, Ace Espinosa) to the way it assumes you’ll catch up without expository pandering, is conceived with such a raw, almost fearless enthusiasm, you tend to overlook what is most likely the clammy hands of studio interference.
2. Return of the Dragon / Revenge of the Dragon (Celso Ad. Castillo, 1974) (see picture)
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, of course. The entire final act is set in a desert where Zamora takes on . . .well, everyone, which is to say, he takes on the world.
1.Bagong Hari (Mario O’Hara, 1986)
O’Hara again. In the beachside fight sequence that opens Bagong Hari , the conspiracy thriller that many proclaim is his lost masterpiece, two shirtless men fight to the death over a golden butterfly knife. There are at least two more action set pieces with arguably more bristle but it’s what O’Hara does here that remains his most striking inversion of genre tropes. The way he abstracts the action by closing in on the combatants, then freezing the frame on every contortion of pain, not only creates this glitchy staccato that would foreshadow the film’s own peculiar narrative rhythms, but also deconstructs the action film for what it really is but often refuses to assume: an apotheosis of pain.
This is by no means a complete list 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.