Director: Charlie Nguyen
Writer: Charlie Nguyen, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Dominic Pereira
Cast: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Veronica Ngo, Dustin Nguyen, Chanh Tin Nguyen, Nguyen Thang, Stephane Gauger, David Minetti
Running Time: 103 min.
If you’ve heard of “The Rebel,” it’s probably for one of two reasons. (1.) Upon the time of its release in 2007, it was the most expensive Vietnamese production of all time, with a budget somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million US dollars. (2.) It stars Dustin Nguyen of “21 Jump Street” fame.
Now I knew that this was a martial arts movie but avoided it precisely because I figured: “It’s got the guy from ’21 Jump Street’ in it. How good could it be?” I wish Dustin Nguyen could deliver a spin-kick to my former, ignorant self’s head because I now know that 1.) this movie is bad-ass and (2.) Dustin Nguyen is a bad-ass. Don’t believe me? Watch “The Rebel” and learn.
I finally decided to give this film a shot when I found out it starred Johnny Tri Nguyen, who was in “Tom Yum Goom.” If you recall, he was the guy in fancy snakeskin pants who fought Tony Jaa with some serious kicks at the climax of the famous restaurant scene. Here he breaks out into his own headlining role and he proves to be a compelling lead, though he still most impressive during the film’s many fight scenes.
“The Rebel” is set in 1920’s Vietnam, back when the country was exploited and generally treated like crap by the French. Similar to “Ip Man,” here we have a story about an oppressed people and the heroes amongst them who rise up to take a stand. The French are uniformly portrayed as loathsome, violent individuals who feel forced to shoulder the “white man’s burden” of helping Asian people ‘improve’ their countries. Though one main character admits “the French aren’t all bad,” the portrayal is pretty one-sided. For better or worse, that’s fairly typical of martial arts movies these days.
To its credit, the film’s plot kept me interested more than your average kung fu flick. “The Rebel” is beautifully photographed and, though the twists may be predictable, the story is bolstered by some solid performances. Dustin Nguyen is a real standout as the villain; he actually gets to show a decent range of emotion and isn’t just your usual mustache-twirling bad guy. Thanh Van Ngo really impressed me as the main heroine of the film; she may be a famous pop star and model in Vietnam but you would never know it from how much ass she kicks in this movie. Her martial arts moves seem totally legit. She does these full-body takedowns with her legs wrapped around guys’ necks, the kind of thing I’ve only really seen Donnie Yen do. I was almost ready to peg her as the next Michelle Yeoh after just one flick!
The amazing fight scenes were choreographed by Johnny Tri Nguyen himself and they’re rather plentiful during the film’s 103 minute runtime. The characters appear to fight with a mix of Vietnamese martial arts and other styles like Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do, all of which Johnny Nguyen is trained in. I promise you’ll do plenty of “Holy crap, did they really just kick that stuntman across the face?!” double takes throughout the movie. I know it’s getting old to compare everything to “Ong Bak,” but “The Rebel” truly does specialize in a similar style of contact-heavy fight scenes. It’s just damn good fight choreography – no wires, no CG bullshit.
My only complaint with “The Rebel”? During the first half of the film, Dustin Nguyen’s character seems to have almost supernatural abilities. Knives can’t penetrate his skin and he can punch straight through a concrete wall without his knuckles bleeding. I kept waiting for some kind of explanation – a mystical amulet of sorts? It stuck out as the one fantastical element in an otherwise very reality-based film. But Dustin is rendered mortal during the final battle and the subject is never brought up again. It’s the one real nitpick I have against an otherwise excellent flick. Regardless, “The Rebel” is well worth watching for fans of no-nonsense action movies.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8.5/10