“The Rebel” – A.J. Hakari

It’s an iffy concept, bringing together two cinematic styles that couldn’t be less alike. Once in a while, the results are as insane as Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, the deliriously goofy marriage between the samurai and gunslinger genres. Other times, you get something like The Rebel, a movie that tries hard to leave its own distinctive mark but barely makes a dent. It’s this Vietnamese import’s intent to combine the historical drama with a kick-butt action flick, a la Ong-Bak. The idea sounds pretty cool on paper, but unfortunately, The Rebel doesn’t quite muster enough energy to completely get itself off the ground.

Our story takes place in the 1920s, in the midst of France’s occupation of Indochina. Native men and women have split themselves into two main groups: those in league with the French and those who become freedom fighters determined to reclaim their homeland. Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is charged with tracking down the home base of these rebels, although he’s decidedly more sympathetic than his sadistic partner Sy (Dustin Tri Nguyen). The pair finally make some progress after capturing Thuy (Ngo Thanh Van), the fetching daughter of the resistance leader (Nguyen Van Day). But just as they’re about to use Thuy as bait to lure out dear old dad, Cuong has a change of heart and springs her from prison. Now a wanted man, Cuong goes on the run alongside Thuy, joining her as she plots to make one last stand against their country’s oppressors.

If its back cover is to be believed, The Rebel is the biggest box office smash in Vietnamese history, and it’s not hard to see why. In addition to the martial arts angle, there’s also a thread of patriotism woven throughout that I’m willing to bet put a few more butts in seats. The end result is glossed over with a coat of romanticization, not to a Baz Luhrmann kind of extent but definitely enough to make the film safe and marketable to foreign territories. There’s nothing wrong with taking a lighter approach to a serious subject, but in The Rebel’s case, it leaves you wanting something more. You get the sense that director/co-writer Charlie Nguyen wanted to convey a great love for his country, to pay tribute to those brave enough to stand up to foreign invaders. But it’s hard to get into this aspect of the story when Nguyen goes from showing Thuy crying over the bodies of slain rebels one minute to a whiz-bang fight sequence the next. I guess I was in the market for something a little more serious or at least nimble enough to take on both tasks with relative ease.

In any case, The Rebel comes across like those World War II-era movies that sort of threw in the Nazis as an afterthought instead of tying them into the story. Taken on its own as a straightforward action movie, it fares just a little bit better. The martial arts style used here is reminiscent of Ong-Bak and The Protector, focused more on swift, brutal blows over fancy choreography. I liked this “cut to the chase” attitude, which gave the action sequences an appropriately lean and mean edge. The story is as basic as it gets, but it’s simple enough to let the action flow with relatively few hang-ups. I can’t say that Johnny Tri Nguyen made for an arresting hero, his talents as co-writer and action director not tangible enough to extend to the acting realm. On the other hand, I got a real kick out of Van’s turn as the lionhearted Thuy, displaying both beauty and brawn as she brawls her way across the screen. Dustin Tri Nguyen also makes for a memorable bad guy, whose apparent invincibility is even more awesome due to the fact that it’s never really addressed. He’s just mysteriously able to take a lot of punishment, and the other characters just sort of roll with it.

I’ve seen better action opuses than The Rebel, though I wouldn’t write it off just yet. It had the potential to be something truly memorable, and although it didn’t quite make it, it emerged with a decent enough picture in the end. Hardcore martial arts buffs might be let down by The Rebel, but newcomers may find it a solid introduction to a whole new world of ass-kicking fun.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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