A sex slave ring, a twisted serial killer and sexpot Michelle Aldana on the sidelines, Ronnie Ricketts' Hawak Ko, Buhay Mo (Your Life In My Hands) could have been a real contender if he had a better budget and a tighter script. Noel Vera sighs away.


Hard to believe, but there you are: of all the recent actors who’ve tried their hand at directing, the most promising seems to be Ronnie Ricketts. Ricketts onscreen comes off as a quiet, unassuming action star with day-old stubble and excellent kickboxing form. Not exactly material for Aspiring Director, which usually calls for an actor who’s won dubiously earned acting awards (nowadays all local acting awards are dubious) with an ego to match.

But Ricketts is the real thing. His budget for Hawak Ko, Buhay Mo (Your Life In My Hands) can’t come up to more than a fraction of Mission: Impossible’s budget, and he still manages to make lively action sequences that rival Impossible in energy and inventiveness. Without the money for a Steadicam, he simply keeps the camera handheld: the resulting jumpy, restless images charge up the audience, keeping them on the edge of their seats for the next manually operated shot. The secret of his cinema seems to be in the wrist, which is kept fast and loose and funny.

He has three weaknesses that I can see. His editing can be tight when the situation is tight and someone wants to manhandle someone else, usually with both bare hands. And he knows counterpoint - a few fast cuts, then a sudden image in slow motion. But in between the action set pieces, the film is oddly slack. Ordinary scenes which shouldn’t bother more conventional directors are long and drawn-out; dialogue in particular is a real pain.

Once in a while the editing can get too tight, and you don’t know where you are in the fight scene - a cardinal sin for an action director. I can’t emphasize this too much, but the greatest action directors on film are great precisely for their clarity - Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Howard Hawks. Even Sam Peckinpah with his furiously edited violence never allowed you to get lost. (His slow motion is cited as a trademark style, but it’s more than that - it’s one of his ways of letting you know what’s going on.)

Ricketts is competent with actors, but only competent. He still doesn’t let his actors or himself break out of that stop-start style of declamation that’s standard with local action flicks. You know - the scene where the hero faces the villain and they state their philosophical positions on the meaning of life in endlessly convoluted speeches before they try to whack each other’s heads off. It’s a formula, true; something the local audience tends to expect. But the least he can do is subvert the convention, give it a satiric spin the way Anjo Yllana did in one of his action-comedy capers - I can’t for the moment remember what.

Michelle Aldana does well in what’s largely an ornamental role. Her affair with Ricketts is nicely low-key, with minimum dramatics. Ricketts himself isn’t really acting; this is the persona his fans are familiar with, a mix of melancholic vulnerability and driven determination, badly in need of a shave. Ricketts seems to be modeling himself after Clint Eastwood, an approach which has its advantages and drawbacks. The drawback is that Sergio Leone once referred to Eastwood as a block of marble that you have to shape yourself; the advantage is that, well, he is after all marble - material that gleams once all the polishing is done.

Complementing Ricketts’ block is Michael De Mesa’s fine-marble performance as villain (Leone, when asked about Robert De Niro, considered him not a block but a finished work of art). De Mesa isn’t given equal billing or even equal screen time but his slyly perverse grin and laser-sighting eyes have a way of burrowing under the skin, to the point that in the final face-off with Ricketts, he achieves a larger-than-life stature.

It’s been years since I felt any kind of shudder in a Filipino action film (the last time might be in Mario O’Hara’s noir masterpiece, Bagong Hari [The New King]). Standing on that catwalk in leather cladding, his hands held loosely at each side like the weapons that they are, De Mesa made me shudder. (Can I suggest De Mesa as an anti-hero in a Ricketts-directed flick? Just hoping.)

Ricketts’ most serious weakness is in scripting. We get a serial killer (De Mesa) who likes to twist people’s necks around until they break; then we get a sex slavery ring thrown in for good measure. The two storylines could make a movie by themselves; together, they tend to detract and weaken each other. De Mesa is very good, but his serial killer isn’t that much out of the ordinary. After the tableau-setting killer in Se7en and the mimic-killer in Copycat, you tend to expect a little more. The sex slave ring just cries out for a twist or three - the revelation, for example, that Ricketts’ boss is actually heading the ring.

But what we do get is pretty interesting. The showdown between De Mesa and Ricketts features a deft mirror-maze sequence that recalls something of Enter The Dragon and even Orson Welles’s Lady From Shanghai. Ricketts is fast on his feet, and he has a filmmaker’s eye. With more consistent editing, a more inspired script and a somewhat bigger budget, he might make a movie worth sending to film festivals abroad. He is one propulsive vehicle that shows every sign of taking off.

Note: Manila Chronicle, July 26, 1997. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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September 4, 2007

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