Though many will be quick to make comparisons between this film and Gareth Evans’ slam-bang actioner The Raid, Metro Manila is in fact very much the inverse of that film. If Evans’ frantic video game-style movie compensated for its lack of substance with merciless, technically accomplished action, this third feature from Sean Ellis (Cashback, The Broken) goes the opposite way, eschewing relentless set-pieces in favour of well-drawn characters and compelling drama.
Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and Mai (Althea Vega) are a couple who, after being forced to sell their rice stock for one-fifth of its usual value, decide to move with their two children to Manila, with the hope that they can start a new, more prosperous life. After losing their savings through fraud and having to squat in an empty shack, things look up once Oscar gets work as an armoured-truck driver, making friends with his partner Ong (John Arcilla), who seems affable yet not quite trustworthy. Mai, meanwhile, is forced to prostitute herself at a local strip bar, though at least the family’s most dire chapter appears to be behind them, that is, until Oscar learns of a scheme from Ong that could net them a tasty payday, and all Hell breaks loose.
The slow-burn approach will certainly surprise anyone expecting a full-tilt action picture out of Metro Manila, and in fact, there’s not a whole lot of physical incident in the film at all; beyond a few brutal flashbacks and a climactic chase sequence, Ellis restrains himself, focusing on the plight of his characters and the eventual tension that this precipitates.
Even if the pace flags occasionally from time to time, the package is so slickly assembled – the evocative night-time photography and sound design are particularly remarkable – and the central trio of performances are so refined, that audiences likely won’t care for long. Macapagal is so convincingly spineless and Vega so perfectly browbeaten that watching them veer ever closer to the cliff edge before pulling themselves away just in time, before edging closer once again, is an entrancing experience.
Those prepared to soak themselves in this world and follow the winding narrative arc will find plenty of rewards in the film’s bittersweet ending, which leavens a solid twist, hammered home by top-notch editing and a punchy, emotive score. It isn’t going to have the ecstatic cross-over appeal of something like The Raid, but it’s a smartly pragmatic film that will play well with both those after a nuanced drama and those who want something a little more thrilling also.
This immaculately composed heist flick-cum-morality play just might bring Hollywood knocking on Sean Ellis’ door.
Metro Manila premieres at Sundance London on April 26th.
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