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I had always intended to watch Charlie Nguyen’s “The Rebel”, but never got around to it. Call it procrastination, call it laziness, call it laundries on Sundays. Whatever the excuse, the result is the same: I’m kicking myself for not having watched the film sooner. Released in 2007, “The Rebel” is Vietnam’s most expensive production in history, with a reported budget of $1.5 million. Catering fees by Hollywood standards, no doubt, but impressive for a Vietnamese production. The investment paid off, and the film has since become the highest grossing movie in that country’s history, though admittedly box office numbers from the region are spotty at best. The film is currently seeing a DVD release in the States through the Weinstein Company via their Dragon Dynasty label.
“The Rebel” stars former Hollywood stuntman Johnny Nguyen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Charlie, the film’s director. The movie’s biggest draw to foreign audiences will undoubtedly be its high-octane action sequences, though fans of 1980s TV show 21 Jump Street (aka the show that Johnny Depp was in before he made it big) will get a kick out of seeing Dustin Nguyen, also of 21 Jump Street fame, here playing a vicious bad guy with some heavy duty martial arts moves. Dustin makes for an impressive villain, and makes “The Rebel” worthwhile in-between all the kicking, punching, and crazy spin kicks from leading man Nguyen, of which there are plenty. The guy knows how to jump and kick very, very well.
The film is set in 1920s Vietnam, currently under the colonial rule of those pesky French. Johnny Nguyen plays Cuong, one of three Vietnamese secret police badasses that roam the streets of Vietnam looking for troublemaking rebels. When Cuong and his boss Sy (Dustin Nguyen) foil a daylight assassination attempt on a high-ranking French official, they also nab a major key to catching the country’s most wanted man, the leader of the insurgency – his daughter, Thuy (Veronica Ngo). While Sy attempts to break Thuy, Cuong is going through something of a midlife crisis, ushered forth by the splattered brains of a young rebel fighter he was forced to shoot at point-blank range. Soon, Cuong has developed a conscience and helps Thuy escape the vile clutches of Sy. The two head off into the countryside, with Sy and the French in hot pursuit.
There are talks of nationalism and Vietnamese pride, but the above pretty much sums up the entire plot of “The Rebel”. The film’s star Johnny Nguyen and his leading lady Veronica Ngo (a famous pop star in her native Vietnam) are novices to the acting game, and as a result the film struggles with its stabs at weighty drama, which come across as awkward. Much of the film’s heavy dramatic lifting is provided by Dustin Nguyen as the brutal secret agent with a most damning past. The film’s most effective character moments are whenever Sy is in the company of his condescending frog superiors, who never seem to miss an opportunity to remind him of his tarnished past, pathos that the intelligent, cunning Sy shoulders like little metal claws digging deeper and deeper into his flesh with every insult.
But never mind all that acting stuff. You’re probably wondering about the action. The answer is Yes, “The Rebel” delivers on the action. Johnny Nguyen is a physically gifted performer and carries the film’s action load like a pro. In a sense, he is a pro, having been in and around plenty of big-budget Hollywood films in his career. So yeah, he knows how to take a punch and deliver one (or five), and if he improves as an actor, I don’t see a whole lot of limitations to Nguyen’s career. Certainly, the inability to speak English or act hasn’t exactly hindered Tony Jaa’s worldwide acclaim. (As an aside, Nguyen co-starred with Jaa in Prachya Pinkaew’s “Tom Yum Goong”.) I’ll be shock if this guy isn’t doing English-language action movies in a year or two from now. That is, if that’s the direction he wants to go, which isn’t necessarily a given.
“The Rebel” features a number of good supporting players, including co-star Veronica Ngo, who despite her pop star status is actually quite convincing as an action heroine. The script wisely doesn’t turn Ngo’s character into a super woman, and although she knows how to throw down, she’s still no match for powerhouses like Cuong or Sy. But hey, she might not be able to hurt Sy, but she can still kick plenty of asses all by her little lonesome. Worthy opponents for Cuong and Thuy are slim pickings, but the film does offer up David Minetti as a formidable opponent in an opium den throwdown. To his credit, Johnny Nguyen is no Steven Seagal-wannabe, and his character takes almost as much punishment as he dishes out. As one of the film’s co-writers and essentially one of its driving forces, you gotta respect a leading man who is willing to get dirty and tossed around because it looks better onscreen.
Alas, “The Rebel” is not perfect by any means. It has issues. Boy, does it have issues. While second-time director Charlie Nguyen shows plenty of promise behind the camera, there are some noticeable issues with the film’s sound work, which at times comes across as amateurish and spotty, with the filmmakers eschewing natural sound for loud, unnatural-sounding foley. Also, there are huge gaping holes in the script. Essentially, the film’s final Third Act is one big contrived and confused mess, which I have to say, makes so little sense that after a while you just have to throw your hands in the air and go with it, because to think too much about it would only cause you to go batty. How exactly did four guys on foot manage to outrace a fast-moving train again? And is Cuong a double agent for Sy or isn’t he? I’ve seen the film twice now, and I’m still not sure. To be honest with you, I don’t know if the screenwriters know.
But never you mind the above paragraph. I’m sure most action fans who are considering picking up “The Rebel” are wondering what martial arts styles they’ll be getting. I’m not a martial arts expert by any means, but I do play one on the Internet. Muay Thai seems to be the dominant fighting form for the men in the movie, including star Johnny Nguyen and Dustin Nguyen, who I didn’t know was capable of this kind of physical stunt work, so that’s another pleasant surprise. Veronica Ngo’s fighting is more natural and fluid (womanly, if you will), and less reliant on power and more on movement and speed. There are plenty of stand-out fight scenes in the movie, and it’s usually a very good time when Cuong locks horns with Sy or another male opponent. Thuy’s action scenes are pretty to look at (the lady ain’t so bad on the eyes, either), but they’re more heavily choreographed than realistic. Still, it’s obvious she’s not just going through the motions, and actually knows what she’s doing.
“The Rebel” might possibly be the first Vietnamese martial arts movie of its kind, and is certainly the first Vietnamese martial arts movie that I have seen. Written, produced, and promoted on a budget that wouldn’t get an A-list Hollywood star out of bed, the film manages to be a solid and entertaining action movie that is recommended for fans of the form. And while I certainly have issues with the script (oh boy do I have serious issues with the script), I’m willing to overlook it, because this isn’t the kind of movie you nitpick the script over. Do you spend all your time wondering why Tony Jaa is jump-kneeing some guy through a window? Of course not. To its credit, “The Rebel” does feature a great performance by Dustin Nguyen. Just don’t pay too much attention to all the other stuff that doesn’t involve Dustin Nguyen or someone getting kicked in the face.
Truc ‘Charlie’ Nguyen (director) / Johnny Nguyen, Truc ‘Charlie’ Nguyen, Dominic Pereira (screenplay)
CAST: Johnny Nguyen … Le Van Cuong
Veronica Ngo … Vo Thanh Thuy
Dustin Nguyen … Sy
Stephane Gauger … Derue
David Minetti … Tessier
Chanh Tin Nguyen … Cuong’s Father
Thang Nguyen … Hua Danh