THE REBEL is a hard-biting martial arts and gunplay actioner from Vietnam, the first of its kind from the country and a showcase for the phenomenal talents of international stunt actor Johnny Nguyen. Armed with a wide array of dynamic martial arts skills, the actor teams with his equally impressive discovery, singer and model-turned-martial arts starlet Veronica Ngo, as they take on Dustin Nguyen (FINISHING THE GAME) and French occupiers in 1920s-era Colonial Vietnam.
Charlie Nguyen ably directs an impressive first script from his brother Johnny, backed up by a core team of Hollywood-trained crew members. It’s a nationalist story that does for Vietnam what Lo Wei’s FIST OF FURY did for China and THE PROTECTOR did for Thailand.
Cuong (Johnny Nguyen) starts out as an agent of the colonial government working to quell a rebellion fueled by injustices committed by French occupiers and the desire to be free from their rule. Growing weary of bloodshed, he opts to free Thuy (Ngo Thanh Van), a female rebel caught following an attempted political assassination. This act turns him into a wanted man and he becomes the target of his old partner, Sy (Dustin Nguyen), a sadistic agent hoping that loyalty to his French superiors will give him greater power.
As Cuong struggles to come to terms with his violent past and Thuy learns to trust him, Sy shadows them on the pair’s flight back to a small village where Thuy’s father and fellow rebels are hiding out. It is here that Cuong and the other rebels make their stand against Sy and his French allies.
For a modest $1.6 million production, a lot by Vietnamese film standards, THE REBEL boasts very impressive period design from costumes to settings and vehicles. Imagery is dominated by a dusty, sepia tone that enhances the serious tone of the story and grounded, realistic action bereft of wirework.
Martial arts action in THE REBEL is an intriguing mixture of techniques that reflect action director Johnny Nguyen’s varied training and experience working in Hollywood, Thailand and Hong Kong. With THE PROTECTOR being his most recent work previous to THE REBEL, Johnny noticeably incorporates a variety of Muay Thai strikes using elbows, knees and front extension kicks. He uses wushu in various spinning kicks and in some bladed weapons work. There are also more military or modern takedowns and grappling used that look similar to MMA and the Keysi Fighting Method.
Nguyen also makes an effort to feature more unique Vietnamese fighting styles, notably an art known as Vovinam. His co-star Ngo Thanh Van repeatedly performs a distinctive scissor headlock that traps her opponent’s neck between her legs and brings him to the ground to crush his throat or choke him. The move looks great and she appears to perform it flawlessly. It’s a move that hasn’t been used much in martial arts cinema.
Regarding Ngo, she is arguably the real star of the movie. Not since Michelle Yeoh have I seen a female screen fighter with the triple threat of strong presence, beauty and killer moves. Johnny Nguyen picked her after exhaustive casting for what is clearly a very demanding role. He spent several months training her specifically for this film and the results are fantastic. I would love to see her paired up with or go against CHOCOLATE star JeeJa Yanin. The two appear comparable in skill.
As lead villain, Dustin Nguyen performs his duty well. He comes across little too much like Agent Smith from the MATRIX films but is effectively menacing and manages his action sequences opposite Johnny and Ngo with skill. His movements are stiffer than his co-stars but work for the character. He’s reserved in personality and movement so action and acting complement each other.
There are a few problems with the movie. Johnny relies too much on flying spinning kicks, particularly in situations where it doesn’t seem logical or appropriate given the often direct nature of attacks during some scenes. He strikes an awkward balance between military-style combat and flashier performance moves throughout the movie.
The plot is simple and straight forward with thriller-like twists and turns akin to a modern-day spy movie like THE BOURNE IDENTITY. It’s not as sophisticated though and supporting cast members could have been given a little more depth. Initially, the movie gives the impression that it could be a very involved and intriguing political actioner with a complex hero but that promise falls apart as the plot largely devolves into a more conventional and personal conflict. It’s interesting to see how dialogue gradually thins out as the plot progresses. This would normally be an asset for a martial arts movie but in this case the film’s subject matter and initial presentation are compelling enough that I would have liked to have seen more verbal sparring and drama, especially given the complex nature of Johnny’s conflicted character. Charlie Nguyen appears quite capable of merging drama with action in a compelling way and the film could have benefited from a more fully fleshed out story that a larger budget would have afforded.
It has been a while since a new or recent martial arts movie has really held my interest beyond the responsibility of relaying my impressions to the world. THE REBEL did just that. It ignores the routine crime plots, smug personalities and excessive wire use that have plagued Hong Kong actioners recently. Instead, it’s a fast-moving and genuinely thrilling experience filled with visceral fighting action that recalls the glory days of Hong Kong action cinema while, like the films of Tony Jaa, it moves in its own distinctive direction. Johnny Nguyen and Veronica Ngo are the best action couple since Jackie Chan teamed up with Michelle Yeoh in POLICE STORY 3: SUPERCOP. Thanks to this pair, along with Dustin Nguyen and Charlie Nguyen, Vietnam is now home to world-class action filmmaking.
THE REBEL is coming to DVD in the U.S. on August 26th courtesy of The Weinstein Company. Pre-orders are available at HKFlix.com.
gallery • gunplay • Johnny Nguyen • torture