In French-ruled colonial Vietnam, peasant uprisings have left those in power worried and afraid. Activating Vietnamese agents to hunt down rebels, the French take the battles to them. One such agent, Le Van Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen) finds himself inspired by a ferocious and spirited rebel Vo Thanh Thuy (Veronica Ngo) to join the resistance. At the same time, Cuong’s sadistic superior Sy (Dustin Nguyen) is tracking the two, hoping to be led to the leader of the rebellion, Thuy’s father.
Director Charlie Nguyen helms this patriotic and action-packed film set in the revolutionary days of Vietnam. Martial artist and stuntman Johnny Tri Nguyen takes center stage in a very physical and athletically demanding performance that sees him punching, kicking, and taking some heavy falls. This somewhat nationalistic picture takes a decidedly negative view of imperialism and seems to revel in the empowering aspect of revolution. Not unlike Hong Kong cinema’s own dealings and depictions with British imperialism, The Rebel infuses high energy action with a broad but personal tale of shared history.
Johnny Tri Nguyen delivers a commendable if somewhat stiff performance, there’s a tentativeness here which has since disappeared in his subsequent films, but is fairly evident here. Veronica Ngo is very good as the fiery and butt kicking Thuy. Her energy and willingness to go.all in during the action scenes makes a very strong impression. Her tenaciousness is infectious and though her character is fairly one dimensional, she’s easy enough to get behind. Dustin Nguyen takes a seemingly malevolent and ‘Terminator’ like approach to his character; he’s tough, unrelenting, and vicious to an extreme. Aside from Ngo, no one really delivers anything better than simply action film level performances but it serves the purpose and is enough to invest you with the characters and their eventual battles.
The action here are all about the fight scenes. With his stellar background in wushu, JT Nguyen flips and 540s all over the place. He’s a powerful performer and his skills are top notch. The only real gripe I have about his techniques is his propensity to keep his arms down when.performing a technique. Surely a side effect of his days in scored competition, it seems out of place in the fights though he has resolved it a bit.in his later films. Veronica Ngo reportedly handled her own stunts and fight sequences and it shows. She falls and get hurt probably more than the guys and her ability to sell the scene is rather effective. Dustin Nguyen’s fights lean more on the supernatural side with his extreme “Iron Robe” technique standing in for the disparity between his and JT Nguyen’s traditional fighting levels. He does sell it well though and certainly did not slouch in his preparation for the film.
In the end, The Rebel is an action-packed and strong announcement to the world Vietnam’s growing ambition in the realm of cinema. While still technically behind other cinematic powerhouses like the United States and Hong Kong, Vietnam is more than capable of delivering some fine and entertaining home-grown entertainment, competing with ideas and pure hard work where money is the big divider.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: Tai Chi 2, Fong Sai Yuk, and/or Ong Bak