For the past several decades, whenever someone wanted to find the cream of the martial arts film crop, they (rightly) turned to China and Hong Kong. Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chang Cheh, Gordon Liu, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao—the list goes on and on, stretching back to form an unparalleled cinematic legacy.
However, within recent years, martial arts cinema has spread throughout the globe. Inspired by the aforementioned names, and the many films tied to them, other countries have begun their own vibrant, ass-kicking cinemas which blend together the influence of Hong Kong and China with each country’s own unique martial arts offerings.
Thailand immediately comes to mind, thanks to films such as Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong and people like Tony Jaa, Prachya Pinkaew, and Panna Rittikrai, which showed Muay Thai kickboxing in all of this bone-breaking glory. France burst on the scene thanks to Banlieue 13, Cyril Raffaelli, and the rise of parkour. Chile has contributed Kiltro and MirageMan. And now, with The Rebel, Vietnam is stepping up to the plate, and showing off some pretty impressive moves.
It’s easy to see why The Rebel was a huge hit back home, in addition to gaining accolades from around the festival circuit. Nothing if not a tale of nationalist pride and patriotism, the film is set in 1922, when Vietnam was still under French colonial rule. Various rebel units have sprouted up throughout the country, trying to fight off the yoke of foreign rule. Aiding the French in their attempts to squash the rebels are Vietnamese secret agents, who are seen as traitors to their own people.
Cuong (Johnny Nguyen) is one of these agents. Together with his commanding officer Sy (Dustin Nguyen), he protects French officials while attempting to end the resistance. However, Cuong has become weary of the constant bloodshed, which rails against his own personal sense of justice. Although a fearsome fighter, his guilt and turmoil lead him to spend his free time either in the bottom of a bottle or in the arms of a prositute.
That all changes during an assassination attempt when Sy captures Thuy (Thanh Van Ngo), the beautiful and fiery daughter of a resistance leader. Driven to the breaking point by Sy’s torture of the young woman, Cuong escapes with her, making their way into the countryside. Along the way, Cuong discovers the truly desperate state of his countrymen. Despite Thuy’s distrust of Cuong’s apparently obtuse motives, the two slowly begin falling for eachother. But even as they get closer to Thuy’s father, Sy and his forces are closing in, seemingly one step ahead of the duo at every turn.
From a martial arts perspective, The Rebel contains more than enough action and high-flying moves to keep action junkies satisfied. Indeed, these are some of the best on-screen moves since Ong-Bak left folks picking their jaws up off the ground.
Johnny Nguyen has been a long-time Hollywood stuntman, and has appeared in numerous action films all over the globe, including Spider-Man 2, Cradle 2 The Grave, and the aforementioned Tom Yum Goong. Not surprisingly, he brings some considerable flair to the screen, combining elements of Muay Thai kickboxing, Chinese kung fu, and the Vietnamese martial art of Vovinam with a great deal of acrobatics and aerial moves. And though neither Dustin Nguyen nor Thanh Van Ngo have any serious martial arts training, they acquit themselves well in the film’s numerous fight scenes, which, like those in Thailand’s recent offerings, go for broke in the “full contact” category.
But in the film’s more dramatic moments, The Rebel stumbles a bit. The film’s heavy streak of nationalist pride does give the film a certain righteous zeal and energy, but it also means the film becomes ponderous and overwrought as characters pontificate and contemplate. And though the film’s cast handles themselves well in the fight scenes, they aren’t quite up to the same level in the dramatic ones.
While it’s clear that both Cuong and Thuy are supposed to be tortured individuals, torn between the violence around them and the burgeoning desire between them, the two leads just don’t quite have the acting chops or depth—Johnny Nguyen may look awesome when he’s doing flying kicks, but he’s only marginally better than Michael Wong in the acting department. Instead, we’re left with lots of forlorn glances and brooding stares, and little else. At times, I was reminded of some of Donnie Yen’s directorial efforts—specifically Legend Of The Wolf—films with plenty of style and action to spare, but little in the dramatic department.
The only character that stands out is Dustin Nguyen’s Sy. Torn between ambition, shame about his past, the racism of his French superiors, and some apparent mother issues, Sy may be a sadistic thug, but at least he’s an interesting and motivated one. Which isn’t something you can necessarily say about the protagonists.
Also worth noting is the films’ visual look. Shot in a lush, atmospheric style that, at times, almost has a Wong Kar-Wai feel to it—especially in the early scenes that set up Cuong’s inner turmoil—The Rebel has a very distinct feel to it, especially when compared to other martial arts films. The film’s contemplative feel, however, also stumbles, due to some curious editing choices.
While director Charlie Nguyen (brother of Johnny) wisely stands back during the fight scenes, trusting in the combatants’ grace and power to thrill rather than rapid-fire editing, the editing often feels abrupt during the slower, more dramatic sequences. Scenes are truncated and rushed, providing a further hurdle to truly conveying the characters’ inner struggles. And the editing takes on a surreal, almost experimental aesthetic during Cuong’s dream sequences—which really feels out of place when compared to everything else in the film.
Of course, most folks are going to be coming to The Rebel to see some impressive action, and in that regard, they will not be disappointed. I was half-afraid that, after watching the trailer, I had seen all of the good stuff, and happily, I was wrong. However, it’s also very apparent that, with The Rebel, Charlie Nguyen—who also co-wrote the movie with his brother—was aiming for something more than yet another martial arts film full of impressive beatdowns.
That, in and of itself, is very admirable, but the fact remains that The Rebel is able to get by on its great martial arts content for only so long before it gets overwhelmed by its patriotic fervor and emotional turmoil.